Jun 30, 2010
Many of us would agree that the science unit about salmon life cycles in elementary school was pretty intriguing.
We were struggling to understand life, death and where babies come from then, and here’s a creature that knows just when it’s supposed to leave the freshwater home of its birth and swim away to experience life in the big ocean, then struggle to swim back home, make babies and die. Cool.
We learned in later lessons that this homing instinct can be traced to the prehistoric-looking fish’s relatives in the Salmonidae family whose fossil “fin prints” can be traced to Driftwood Creek, British Columbia, during the Eocine epoch, about 45 million years ago. Hardy creatures!
Fast forward a few million years, and salmon are still swimming upstream. Humans have now evolved and are harvesting salmon from the streams in summer to sustain them through the winter. This continues for thousands of years.
Fast forward again. In the second half of the 20th century, people get greedy. The “take what you need and leave the rest” philosophy of the first peoples was replaced with a “take all the fish you can sell for the most money out of a big net and leave everything else in your catch to die” approach.
Today, huge floating pollock processing factory ships trawl the Bering Sea and leave a trail of dying salmon in their wake.
Bycatch combined with natural causes has seriously affected Alaska’s salmon fishery. People dependent upon a healthy salmon fishery, both subsistence and commercial, increasingly face limited fishing openings .
That’s the salmon story in Alaska today. In the lower 48 states, rivers were over-fished or streams dammed, preventing fish from returning to their spawning grounds. Currently, many salmon fisheries are suffering.
What do we do? Do we implement sound environmental and biological science to stop the damage to the salmon fisheries and restore healthy levels of salmon returns to the natural habitats?
Not quite. We do a salmon makeover…
Genetically Altered Salmon Get Closer to the Table
The Food and Drug Administration is seriously considering whether to approve the first genetically engineered animal that people would eat — salmon that can grow at twice the normal rate.
In other words, we are considering allowing a profit-making company to alter the genetics of a species that’s done pretty well all by itself, evolving through the eons, so it can be profitably farmed in pens.
Here’s the mission that Aqua Bounty, the biotech company poised to bring “muscle salmon” to our tables, has embarked on:
Our mission is to play a significant part in “The Blue Revolution” – bringing together biological sciences and molecular technology to enable an aquaculture industry capable of large-scale, efficient, and environmentally sustainable production of high quality seafood. Increased growth rates, enhanced resistance to disease, better food-conversion rates, manageable breeding cycles, and more efficient use of aquatic production systems are all important components of sustainable aquaculture industry of the future.
These genetically modified salmon will have no freedom to swim in the ocean until instinct calls and no final journey to native breeding grounds. They will be soulless, genetic, material on our plate. Tasteless.
And what if genetically modified salmon escape and run amuck in the natural habitats as has often happened in aquaculture?
According to an excerpt from an article in The Economist, that’s not a problem:
Aqua Bounty is addressing such concerns by subjecting developing eggs to high pressures. This alters their complement of chromosomes, giving them three sets per cell instead of the usual two. Such “triploid” fish are perfectly viable, but they are sterile.
If you believe that these genetically modified fish might escape from aquaculture pens and NOT have a negative impact on the resident native fish population, here’s the skinny from Scientific American.
The study, published online today by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved growth hormone (GH) transgenic coho salmon, which have greater appetites and can grow up to seven times bigger than wild cohos. Robert H. Devlin of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and his colleagues divided their fish into three separate groups containing either all GH animals, all nontransgenic ones, or an equal mixture of the two. To examine the competition between the two types, the researchers varied the amount of food supplied to the fish.
The team found that all the salmon thrived as long as there was enough food to go around. Faced with food shortages, however, GH individuals in the mixed group outcompeted their wild tankmates, growing larger than both those fish and the ones living in GH-only groups; and the wild salmon in the mixed group exhibited reduced growth as compared to members of the wild salmon-only group. Furthermore, survival rates were significantly reduced in those tanks holding GH salmon–sometimes to the point of extinction. Some of the dead fish appeared to have died from attacks by other fish, and there were several instances of cannibalism. The fish that survived in these tanks were usually the most aggressive GH fish. Individuals in the wild salmon-only groups fared far better, experiencing a constant increase in population biomass over the 14-week period of low rations.
This blog was started to bring awareness to a food vs. fuel crisis facing rural Alaskans in 2009. However, today our scope has broadened. The health of the salmon fishery in rural Alaska is now another important topic of our interest. Contributor Victoria, a commercial fisher of Alaskan Wild Salmon and a concerned Alaskan, has attended North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) meetings and spoken out for lower bycatch numbers. We are all now beginning to understand some of the issues of the bycatch problem.
Besides the food/fuel crisis of the recent past, and the lower bycatch/overfishing issues of the present, the proposal of future genetic modification of salmon adds a new, even more disturbing, layer of concern for the salmon industry, as well as the public at large. A company located far from Alaska is proposing to introduce a new product to the global market that will compete with commercial wild salmon fisheries in far-ranging areas, including the independent commercial fishermen of rural Alaska, and replace their natural, wild caught salmon with laboratory-enhanced seafood.
A threat exists and has not been disproven that escaped genetically modified salmon will endanger native species.We’re not yet at the point where oil and toxic dispersants similar to the ones resulting from the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico have polluted the world’s oceans beyond repair, thus making necessary a land-based aquaculture infrastructure to replace fresh seafood as a means of survival.
This is just another corporate grab at doing something bigger and faster than nature intended. Additionally, it will impact traditional fisheries by driving down demand for wild salmon and potentially harming the genetic structure of a fish that has been evolving for 45 million years. Aqua Bounty claims the chance that fertile salmon might escape and damage salmon stock is remote.
Only a small, sequestered breeding stock is allowed to remain diploid.
BP assured government agencies that every precaution would be taken to prevent oil spills from its deepwater wells and that any accidental spill could be contained using fail-safe measures. BP also promised that any potential offshore leak would be never make it to the shore.
Let’s hope the Food and Drug administration does more than take Aqua Bounty’s word as fact.