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'Frankenfish' Spawns Fears for Native Salmon Stock

by Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
Tri-City Herald, August 20, 2000

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 are being raised that 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 local supermarket.

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, governmental 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, and start competing with wild native stocks for food and spawning sites. While 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, there is equal concern in the Northwest.

"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 and has sought FDA approval to start marketing them 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 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 come from farms.

Elsewhere, scientists in British Columbia and 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 salmon 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. After 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, it's the Atlantic salmon that could pose the greatest threat. The Atlantic salmon has become the staple of fish farming operations in Washington and British Columbia.

Dozens of net pens near Bainbridge Island, Port Angeles and Ancortes 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 has been escaped salmon.

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 chances 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 affected Pacific salmon stocks currently protected by the Endangered Species Act, but a recent study from 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.

In the Northwest, an official of the Omega Salmon Group Ltd., which owns the Washington state salmon farms, said he had heard of no plans to start raising genetically engineered 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, British Columbia.

A/F Protein officials, however, said they have had private discussions about trangenic Atlantic salmon with virtually every salmon company in the world.

Omega is a subsidiary of the one of the world's largest salmon farming companies, 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," Amos said.

Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
'Frankenfish' Spawns Fears for Native Salmon Stock
Tri-City Herald, August 20, 2000

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