• Sitka residents say ‘No’ to genetically modified salmon during Feb. 9 rally

ProtestersOutside

Size comparison of an AquAdvantage® Salmon (background) vs. a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon sibling (foreground) of the same age. (CREDIT AquaBounty)

Size comparison of an AquAdvantage® Salmon (background) vs. a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon sibling (foreground) of the same age. (CREDIT AquaBounty)

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.

PaulRiouxSignsPaul 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. DavidWilcoxSpeaksSignsDavid 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.)

SayNoToFrankenfishThe 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.

PatKehoeFrankenfishAlaska’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.

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• Two FDA committees hear testimony about genetically modified salmon

Size comparison of an AquAdvantage® Salmon (background) vs. a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon sibling (foreground) of the same age. (CREDIT AquaBounty)

Size comparison of an AquAdvantage® Salmon (background) vs. a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon sibling (foreground) of the same age. (CREDIT AquaBounty)

This week, two different U.S. Food and Drug Administration committees have been taking testimony about the future of genetically modified salmon. On Monday, one committee — the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine — heard testimony about whether genetically modified salmon is safe to eat and if it should be approved. Tuesday, the other committee — the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition — heard testimony about whether or not genetically modified salmon should have special labeling.

The issue is over a genetically modified Atlantic salmon produced by the Massachusetts firm AquaBounty Technologies, known as AquAdvantage®. The AquAdvantage® fish not only includes a growth gene from a chinook salmon, which makes it reach market size in 16-18 months instead of the usual three years, plus there is a gene from an eel-like fish known as an ocean pout. 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.

Many in the biotech, food and other industries are pushing for the FDA to quickly approve the commercial production of this fish. But some consumer groups, food safety experts and others want the FDA to slow or end the approval process until more is known about the fish.

On Tuesday’s Alaska News Nightly show, the Alaska Public Radio Network reported that it may be some time before genetically modified salmon reach the market. However, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FDA seemed to give preliminary approval to the fish’s safety and the main issue was who is responsible for telling the consumer the fish has been genetically altered.

AquAdvantage salmon eggs are grown in incubator jars in a laboratory. (CREDIT AquaBounty)

AquAdvantage salmon eggs are grown in incubator jars in a laboratory. (CREDIT AquaBounty)

The idea of a genetically modified Atlantic salmon is of special concern to Alaska’s fishermen. Many fish farms in British Columbia raise Atlantic salmon, and there have been times when Atlantic salmon have escaped from the fish farm pens and mixed with wild Pacific salmon, including in Alaska. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game considers Atlantic salmon an invasive species, and already requests fishermen turn any Atlantic salmon caught in Alaska in to the nearest ADF&G office without being cleaned. According to ADF&G, there are concerns that Atlantic salmon might bring diseases to the five species of Pacific salmon and compete for food.

In addition to more recent cases of diseases among farmed fish and a high use of antibiotics, farmed Atlantic salmon also harmed the markets for Alaska fishermen trying to sell wild salmon (fish farming is banned in Alaska), and prices for Alaska fish dropped substantially when fish farms became more popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s only been in recent years that Alaska fishermen have started to regain some of their lost market share.

Sitka Conservation Society intern Molly Andrews has been keeping a blog this summer on the genetically modified salmon issue and what the fish could mean to Sitka. Molly’s blog has links to several stories about genetically modified salmon (recently called “Frankenfish” by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska). The blog also has contact information if people want to contact the FDA or other officials to make comments about genetically modified salmon.