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Concerns Raised Over Souped-up Salmon

by Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - August 22, 2000

Tinkering with genes sparks worry over altered fish's impact

WASHINGTON -- Among fishermen, bureaucrats and environmentalists, there are increasing concerns these days about genetic tinkering with salmon.

In New Zealand, researchers used genetic engineering to develop a strain of chinook salmon they believed could eventually weigh 550 pounds. The company abandoned the project after a public outcry but held on to the frozen sperm.

On Canada's Prince Edward Island, genetically engineered Atlantic salmon grow four times faster than normal when injected with a protein.

It seems variations on these fish could be the first genetically altered animals to show up in grocery stores.

No one is quite sure what the biological or environmental consequences might be when genetically altered salmon escape from fish farms, where they would grow, breed or compete with native stocks for food and spawning sites.

"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."

A White House panel is trying to sort out which agency has jurisdiction, with potential claims from the Food and Drug Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scientists around the world have been manipulating genes in fish for more than a decade.

A Massachusetts company, A/F Protein Inc., has said it has orders for 15 million eggs from genetically engineered Atlantic salmon it has been raising on Prince Edward Island.

The fish can reach market size in 18 months, rather than the three years it now takes a typical Atlantic salmon. The company is seeking FDA approval to market the eggs to fish farms.

A/F Protein officials say they've had private discussions about transgenic Atlantic salmon with virtually every salmon company.

The breakthrough came when researchers at A/F Protein, an international biotech firm, discovered an antifreeze protein that allows flounder to survive in Arctic waters where salmon can't. In salmon, it acts as a switch that enables the fish to produce a growth hormone year-round, rather than just during warm months.

On the West Coast, Atlantic salmon -- the staple of fish farming operations in Washington and British Columbia -- may pose the greatest threat to wild salmon.

About 10 million pounds are raised in Washington annually, a $40 million-a-year business. Fish farms in British Columbia raise 80 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually.

Since 1996, almost 600,000 Atlantic salmon have escaped from net pens in Washington waters, and at least 60,000 into Canadian waters.

In the past year, Canadian biologists have found juvenile Atlantic salmon in two streams on Vancouver Island, which indicates spawning activity.

The real danger, biologists say, is that the Atlantic salmon will compete with native stocks.And Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to grow faster could pose a greater threat.

Associated Press
Concerns Raised Over Souped-up Salmon
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 22, 2000

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