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Washington Salmon Farm Rules Ban Transgenic Fish

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 13, 2002

Acting on new authority over fish farms given to it by Washington legislation, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved rules for finfish aquaculture projects in the state.

The rules govern permitting of fish farms in a state that already has eight facilities in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and requires that each site has a plan to manage, prevent and report on fish escaping from facilities.

One provision of the rules permanently bans the use of transgenic fish, defined by the rules as the transfer of genes from one species to another, a move applauded by Friends of the Earth.

"Simply engineering designer fish and dropping them into our public waterways puts already endangered salmon at greater risk of extinction," said Shawn Cantrell, Friends of the Earth's Northwest regional director. "Washington State has taken a bold step to protect the environment by permanently banning genetically engineered fish."

Friends of Earth cites one company -- A/F Protein -- that has developed a "super-charged" fish that grows faster and larger than native salmon. "The consequences of engineering such life, and the technology used accomplish it is still highly experimental, poorly understood and alarmingly unpredictable," the group said.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was directed by Second Substitute House Bill 1499, passed by Washington's Legislature in 2001, to work with the aquaculture industry on the rules. It and the industry initially recommended a two-year moratorium on transgenic fish, but commission members felt strongly about the issue and instead opted to ban transgenic fish altogether, according to John Kerwin, WDFW Hatcheries Division manager. Although the technology is available, he said, the federal Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the use of transgenic fish.

WDFW is worried about the impacts transgenic or any type non-native farmed species may have when they interact with native species, said Doug Williams of WDFW. The Commission is especially concerned about the impacts of escaped farm fish on species listed under the federal endangered species act.

Williams said the rules give authority for permitting aquaculture projects to WDFW, and also require fish farms to have a framework to minimize escapes of farmed fish, an escape prevention and management plan, 24-hour reporting requirements for escaped fish and a recapture plan before being licensed to farm fish in Washington. It also gives WDFW authority to inspect facilities.

The rules that will be included in Washington's Administrative Rules require WDFW to approve a permit application within 60 days of receiving a complete application, but it gives the department the right to deny a permit if the project poses significant genetic, ecological or health risks to native fish stocks. The rules also require facilities that make changes to their operations to resubmit an application. Permits are good for five years. Fish farms still must obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from the Washington Department of Ecology.

The legislation was passed in response to ESA concerns for intermixing farmed salmon with endangered salmon, but also because of a federal Department of Commerce goal to significantly increase the production of fish from farms, making it likely the state will receive more requests to approve new facilities in the future.

The Commerce Department wants to "create sustainable economic opportunities in aquaculture in a manner that is environmentally sound and consistent with applicable laws and Administration policy." The federal agency, which also oversees NOAA Fisheries, says that mission would complement and could enhance other efforts to restore depleted fish stocks. It's goal is to increase aquaculture production in the United States from $900 million to $5 billion and to increase exports from $500 million to $2.5 billion, in part to help offset the $6 billion annual trade deficit in seafood, all by 2025.

Anne Presentine-Young of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said ODFW has jurisdiction over licensing fish farms, but there are no fish farms in the state at this time. In 1992 the state banned transgenic fish from use in any area where they could potentially intermingle with native fish.

Related Links:
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:
Department of Commerce:
Friends of the Earth:
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife:

Mike O'Bryant
Washington Salmon Farm Rules Ban Transgenic Fish
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 13, 2002

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