5-Animals: GE salmon a scary prospect
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TITLE: Giant salmon a scary prospect
Genetic engineering prompts worries about 'Frankenfish'
SOURCE: The News Tribune, USA, by Les Blumenthal
DATE: August 21, 2000
-------------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ --------------------
Giant salmon a scary prospect
Genetic engineering prompts worries about 'Frankenfish'
WASHINGTON - In New Zealand, researchers using genetic engineering
developed a strain of chinook salmon they believed could eventually
weigh 550 pounds. On Canada's Prince Edward Island, "transgenic"
Atlantic salmon injected with a protein grow four times faster than
ordinary fish. The "blue revolution" - like the green revolution in
biotech agriculture - is on the verge of exploding, and new breeds of
salmon could be the first genetically altered animals sold in the
But from the shores of Puget Sound to the California statehouse and
from the Alaska governor's office to two streams on Vancouver Island,
fishermen, government officials and environmentalists are
increasingly wary of what critics are calling "Frankenfish." And in
Washington, D.C., a White House panel is trying to sort out which
agency has jurisdiction, with the Food and Drug Administration, the
National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service all having a possible claim. "We are very worried," said Glen
Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of
Fishermen's Associations. "Once you let the genies out of the bottle,
you are at the mercy of the genies."
No one is quite sure what the long-term biological or environmental
consequences might be if genetically altered salmon escaped from the
fish farms, where they would be raised, and cross-bred or competed
with wild, native stocks for food and spawning sites. Most of the
attention has focused on fish farms in New England, where there are
fears transgenic fish could mate with Atlantic salmon that might be
listed as an endangered species. But there is equal concern on the
Pacific Coast. "It's a hot issue," said Kevin Amos of the Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Scientists in the United States, Canada, Japan, China, New Zealand
and other countries have been manipulating genes in fish for more
than a decade, and some of the research is on the verge of commercial
development. A Massachusetts company, A/F Protein Inc., has said it
has orders for 15 million eggs from genetically engineered, or
transgenic, Atlantic salmon it has been raising on Prince Edward
Island. The company has sought FDA approval to start marketing the
eggs to fish farms. The fish can reach market size in 18 months,
rather than the 36 months it now takes a typical Atlantic salmon.
The breakthrough came when researchers at A/F Protein, an
international biotech firm, discovered an antifreeze protein that
allows flounder to survive in cold, arctic water where salmon can't.
The protein acts as a switch that allows the Atlantic salmon to
produce a growth hormone year-round. Normal salmon produce such a
growth hormone only during warm months.
An A/F Protein spokesman was unavailable for comment, but the
company's supporters say such transgenic salmon could dramatically
expand fish farm operations around the world and relieve the pressure
on wild stocks. Already, more than half the salmon sold in the United
States are raised in farms. Elsewhere, scientists in British Columbia
and in the United States have been experimenting with such Pacific
Coast stocks as the coho.
In New Zealand, a company using genetic engineering was developing
what could have been a mammoth chinook, or King salmon, they believed
could eventually grow to 550 pounds. Wild chinook have been caught
weighing 100 pounds or so. According to reports out of New Zealand,
some of the first generation of chinook under development had lumps
on their heads and other deformities. Following a public outcry and
rising government scrutiny, the company abandoned its research
earlier this year and killed and buried the fish. The company,
however, held onto frozen sperm.
While some in the United States downplay reports of such giant
salmon, they say their concerns about genetically engineered salmon
are legitimate. "I find it hard to believe a chinook could grow that
large," said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist with the
Environmental Defense Fund. "But salmon are being genetically
engineered for new traits and this can produce fish that are more
competitive, bigger, more voracious and can threaten local stocks."
On the West Coast, surprisingly, it's the Atlantic salmon that could
actually pose the greatest threat. It has become the staple of fish
farming operations in Washington and British Columbia. In Washington,
dozens of net pens near Bainbridge Island, Port Angeles and Anacortes
are used to rear Atlantic salmon. About 10 million pounds are raised
annually, and it's a $40-million-a-year business. Fish farms in
British Columbia raise 80 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually.
The problem is, the Atlantic salmon escape. Since 1996, almost
600,000 Atlantic salmon have escaped from the net pens in Washington
waters, and at least 60,000 in British Columbia waters. The escaped
fish have been caught by sports fishermen in Puget Sound and found as
far north as the Bering Sea. Most troubling, in the past year
Canadian biologists have found juvenile Atlantic salmon in two
streams on Vancouver Island, a sure sign of spawning activity.
Biologists say the chance of interbreeding between the Atlantic and
Pacific salmon in the Northwest is remote, though interbreeding has
been done in the laboratory and they can't rule it out entirely. The
real danger, biologists say, is that the Atlantic salmon will compete
with the wild Pacific salmon. There are no signs the Atlantic salmon
have significantly impacted Pacific salmon stocks currently protected
by the Endangered Species Act, but a recent study by the Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded "as new data become
available, the opinions of scientists may change."
Genetically engineered Atlantic salmon could provide an even greater
danger to Pacific salmon. They would grow faster and be more
competitive. "It's a recipe for extinction," said Kate Neiswender, an
aide to California state Sen. Tom Hayden. The Los Angeles Democrat
wrote a resolution approved unanimously by the California Legislature
that calls, among other things, on the National Marine Fisheries
Service to ensure transgenic salmon are prevented from threatening
wild stocks. Though there are no net pen operations in California
raising Atlantic salmon and no Atlantic salmon have been found in
California waters, Neiswender said salmon migrate up and down the
West Coast, and Alaska salmon have been found as far south as
Bob King, a spokesman for Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, said that salmon
farming is banned in the state and that the governor considers
Atlantic salmon an "invasive" species. "Having genetically engineered
salmon escape into the wild is a scary prospect," King said, adding
that with a current surplus and depressed salmon prices "we would
question altering Mother Nature to add to the glut."
In the Northwest, an official of the Omega Salmon Group Ltd., which
owns the Washington salmon farms, said he knew of no plans to start
raising transgenic Atlantic salmon. "We are not involved and don't
foresee any on this coast," said Omega controller Keith Bullough, who
is based in Campbell River, B.C. A/F Protein officials, however, said
they have had private discussions about transgenic Atlantic salmon
with virtually every salmon company in the world. Omega is a
subsidiary of the one of the largest salmon farming companies in the
world, Pan Fish ASA, a Norwegian company with operations in Norway,
Scotland, Canada and the United States.
"On the surface, knowing what they have done with transgenic fish, we
would highly scrutinize any attempt to bring them into Washington and
likely not approve them," said Amos of the state Department of Fish
and Wildlife, who added that his agency would have jurisdiction. On
the federal level, the FDA has not approved for use as human food any
transgenic animal under development, including salmon. Agency
officials will say little about transgenic salmon because much of the
information they have received is proprietary. "It's under review,"
said John Matheson of the agency's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
"These fish are not in the supermarkets."
Critics, however, say the FDA can assess food safety issues but has
little background in assessing environmental risks. "Having the FDA
assess environmental risks would be like having the Fish and Wildlife
Service assessing food safety," said the Environmental Defense Fund's
Goldburg. "It's absurd." The FDA has done environmental assessments
before and has been working with the Fish and Wildlife Service and
the National Marine Fisheries Service, Matheson said. "We are not
competitive, we are complimentary," he said.
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