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FDA ruling on GMO salmon worries Alaska fishermen

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Marshall Swearingen | Jan 17, 2013 05:00 AM

On January 2, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its annual fisheries forecast for the Copper River region, famous for its prolific runs of succulent salmon. The forecast, awaited each year by fisherman living in the region’s port towns, makes predictions based on the previous years’ harvest, weather patterns, and a variety of other data. This year, there’s good news mixed with the bad: 2013 is set to be a good year for pink salmon, but runs of Chinook (king) salmon are expected to be the fifth smallest since 1980. Fish and Game researchers aren’t sure why, but a recent spell of colder ocean temperatures may be partly to blame.

Copper River delta

Making a living on fishing has always been a gamble, but this year Alaska’s fisherfolk have even more cause for worry. On December 26 the FDA quietly issued its approval of genetically modified “AquaAdvantage” salmon. After more than a decade of regulatory uncertainty, the FDA’s decision all but paves the way for the fish to be “farmed.” The FDA is taking public comments on the issue until February 24, but the unambiguous wording of the decision suggests little room for charting a new course. Alaskans who make a living fishing for wild salmon have long opposed AquaAdvantage, saying the freakishly fast-growing fish puts wild stocks -- and the state’s fishing industry -- at risk.

The AquaAdvantage salmon entered the world back in 1989, when AquaBounty retrofitted Atlantic salmon with a growth hormone gene from the mighty Chinook salmon, plus a gene from the eel-like ocean pout that keeps the growth gene switched on. Although this kind of genetic meddling had precedence in crop agriculture, when it came to “aquaculture” it was new. The FDA didn’t know quite what to do. And environmental and consumer groups were quick to put on the pressure.

The subsequent years of research and regulatory debate almost sunk AquaBounty, who lost investors as their business model dangled on the seemingly elusive FDA approval of their product. But now, after 17 years, the FDA has approved the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption.

Not surprisingly, the decision has provoked another wave of opposition. In Alaska, where the seafood industry tops $4.6 billion in a good year and life in many regions of the state revolves around the fishing season, AquaAdvantage could bring a replay of the economic woes caused by the rise of non-GMO fish farming in the 1990s. In 1989, Alaska banned the practice, but a glut of farmed salmon on the market hit the state's salmon economy hard anyway. Prices for wild salmon dropped by 50 percent before turning around again in 2000.

The Alaskan wild salmon market’s recovery has been helped along by strong currencies on the export market, plus the kind of niche marketing that’s turned “Copper River” into a stamp of quality. Still, prices for wild salmon have tended to fluctuate with the price of farmed salmon.

There are natural forces at play, too. The Fish and Game Department says it won’t know for several years if the recent period of cold ocean temperatures signals a longer trend, which would mean smaller runs. These kinds of cycles have caused large fluctuations of salmon over prior decades, even centuries, according to a recently released study by researchers at the University of Washington. And in the short-term, salmon waters are threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine upstream of Bristol Bay, and now, as HCN reported in a recent feature, by a half-dozen industrial mega-projects revving up in the Canadian headwaters above Southeast Alaska.

Alaska fishing groups are already organizing in opposition to the FDA approval. United Fishermen of Alaska, an umbrella group representing 37 commercial fishing organizations, is urging the public to file comments. The FDA has the authority to order a full Environmental Impact Statement, which could consider economic and cultural impacts. But the decision, which is based on a more limited “environmental assessment,” states that AquaBounty’s plan would have no “significant effect on the quality of the human environment in the United States.”

Alaska’s fishermen beg to differ.

Images (Copper River and Cordova harbor) courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.

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