Between 100 and 150 Sitka residents braved the wind and rain on Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Crescent Harbor Shelter to protest the possible U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of genetically modified salmon (aka, GMO or GE salmon, or Frankenfish).
The rally (click here to listen to rally coverage from KCAW-Raven Radio) was in protest of a genetically engineered salmon from the Massachusetts company AquaBounty Technologies, called the AquAdvantage® Salmon. The GMO salmon starts with an Atlantic salmon commonly used in fish farms, but adds genes from a Pacific king (chinook) salmon to promote growth and genes from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout that grows all year round instead of seasonally. According to AquaBounty, all of the commercialized fish will be female and sterile, and the fish are designed to be raised in fresh-water pens or tanks on land instead of the usual salt-water pens where most farmed Atlantic salmon are raised. AquaBounty promotes the fish as a faster-growing farmed salmon that takes half the time to reach maturity and be sent to market. To learn more about GMO salmon, read our post from 2010.
Paul Rioux — the Sitka resident who organized the rally with the help of local fishing groups, the Sitka Conservation Society, and others — said fishermen are concerned about what happens if these GMO salmon escape from pens. He noted that while AquaBounty said the fish will be sterile, other scientists said as many as 5 percent could be fertile, and that’s enough so that the GMO salmon as an invasive species could replace wild Pacific salmon within 40 salmon generations. David Wilcox, a 14-year-old Sitka resident who plans to run across the country to protest GMO foods, spoke for the other residents who said they were concerned with genetically engineered fish in general, and they worried this fish might go to market without being labeled as GMO salmon. (Click here to listen to Rioux, Wilcox and Ray Friedlander of the Sitka Conservation Society discuss why they held the rally during a Feb. 8 Morning Edition interview on KCAW-Raven Radio.)
The FDA, which has been looking at GMO salmon for more than a decade (AquaBounty started work on the fish in 1989), announced in December it planned to approve the genetically engineered fish, just in time for the holidays. At the same time, the FDA finally released environmental impact research papers it was supposed to have released in May. The FDA announcement also started a 60-day public comment period that was supposed to end on Feb. 25. On Feb. 13, the FDA extended the comment period until April 26. Sitka residents are encouraged to go to Regulations.gov and search for “GE salmon” (not “GMO”) to comment on the regulations before the April 26 deadline.
Alaska’s Congressional delegation agrees on few items, but Sen. Mark Begich, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young have been united for a couple of years in their efforts to stop Frankenfish. Sen. Begich this week introduced two bills banning GMO salmon. Last May, Sen. Murkowski introduced an amendment (that failed 50-46) requiring more study of GMO salmon by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA). In the House, Rep. Young has been one of the most vocal opponents of Frankenfish and in February he introduced a bill requiring GMO salmon be labeled. In the Alaska House of Representatives, Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) and Rep. Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) introduced an anti-Frankenfish bill that passed out of the House Fisheries Committee this week.