Archive for June, 2010

Tomorrow’s Fish Market Choices: Halibut? Trout? Wild Salmon? How ‘bout a Nice Fillet of Genetically Engineered AquaAdvantage®?

June 30, 2010

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.

Eagle Village Update: Renewable Energy to Power a Renewed Community

June 23, 2010

Jun 23, 2010

Last year Eagle Village, on Alaska’s Yukon River, was devastated by a spring flood that swept massive blocks of river ice through the historic town destroying all homes and businesses in its path. The damage was devastating.

We watched as FEMA responded ably and quickly and volunteers from around the world pitched in to successfully build new homes for residents whose lives had been washed away. Everyone was buttoned up tightly by winter – a proud ending to a tragic chapter of Eagle Village’s history.

Now a new chapter in the history of Eagle Village is beginning.

Alaska Power & Telephone Company (AP&T) is poised to take an historic plunge in the Yukon River near the towns of Eagle and Eagle Village this week with the cutting-edge deployment of Alaska’s first 25-kilowatt low-impact hydrokinetic river turbine. The first of its type to be placed into commercial service, the in-stream turbine, manufactured by New Energy Corp., is a 4-blade vertical axis unit mounted on a floating platform. The slow-spinning turbine (22 rpm max) produces no emissions, requires no dam and poses very little risk to marine life


With the help of 3.2 million dollars in grant funding from the Denali Commission of Alaska, the native town of Eagle Village will likely become the first in America to become powered solely by a renewable river-turbine hydrokinetic energy source.

The project is interesting in itself but the fact that Eagle Village, in a remote area off the road system for most of the year, is set to become the poster child for utilizing renewable energy, and from the currents of a river that took so much from it, will be an interesting story to follow.

Much better to harness the renewable energy of our rivers and oceans than to endanger them in the quest to capitalize on the finite resources beneath them.

Scientific Approach to Ugashik Salmon Returns

June 8, 2010

Some exciting research is going on right now at the Ugashik Lakes here in Bristol Bay, at least for us ‘fish people’! 

Through a combined effort of our CDQ, their ‘science arm’, a drifting fish marketing group, Pilot Point groups and some local residents up at the Ugashik Lakes, a sonar project to count salmon “yearlings” or smolt* is under way. This is just one of a number of tools that are used to make not only better forecasts of the returning salmon, but also help to better manage the entire system of salmon runs.
* Salmon life cycle

The state of Alaska used to do these types of projects on a regular basis but due to budget restraints they were cut a number of years ago. 

NOW I am sure many of you are hearing ‘sonar’ and thinking of all the issues that sonar  fish count caused on the Yukon last year BUT this is different. This sonar equipment is some of the newest and most sophisticated that can be used for this type of research. Also the conditions are much different than on the Yukon. One thing is the clarity of the water, almost crystal clear at the lakes, and none of the debris that the Yukon has make this different, along with other factors. 

This is a system of sonar ‘pods’ that are placed on the floor of the river, actually between where the lakes drain into a lagoon at the head of the river, that are linked to computers on shore to gather the data.

Now hang with me for a few more paragraphs and maybe you can see why we are so excited. 

This research, after a just a couple of years, will give biologists the ability to not only look at how many smolt come from the number of salmon that were allowed to ‘escape’ up the river, past the fishermen to spawn, but also how well the fish are doing when they return as full grown salmon. 

It can help us understand how our lake system is doing in providing a breeding and rearing ground for these young salmon. We might also be able to fine tune the numbers we harvest and that we allow to escape for spawning from the information gained. 

Sockeye salmon typically spawn in lakes and some of the side creeks that feed those lakes. They require, as do all fish, some environmental specifics, not only to hatch, but also to survive and grow the one to two years they spend in the lakes before heading out to sea. 

My understanding is that most often the Ugashik Lakes Sockeye spend two years in the two lakes that make up our system, thus leaving bigger, and hopefully healthier, to withstand the conditions they face in the ocean over the next 1-3 years before they return. 

If during this count, and hopefully there will be future counts, we see more fish leaving when they are only one year old we might well have to study what is specifically happening in our lakes to make them leave sooner than normal.

By knowing the number leaving, we can estimate their survivability in the ocean.  We will have a better idea how to insure sustainability if we know the ocean conditions as well as the genetics of all fish caught in bycatch, including the Chinooks. 

Please check back as I update you on what we are seeing this year as the first results come in from the counts. 

We need to also thank BBEDC’s fishing partners, BBSRI, the BB-RSDA, City of Pilot Point, Pilot Point Tribal Council and Mr and Mrs Robert Dreeszen.

~ Victoria Briggs

Resource Extraction: The Cost to Humanity

June 6, 2010

Two Alaska Native women clean salmon along shore;
behind them a man uses a gaff to unload salmon from a skiff;
buildings along shore in background (Alaska’s Digital Archives)

Jun 6, 2010

For weeks we’ve been watching millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.  Attempts to fix this man-made disaster that is threatening the lives and lifestyles of a number of species – from photo plankton right up to human beings who live along the Gulf’s shores and depend upon its abundant resources for survival – have been eye-opening.

Self regulation, lack of oversight, profits over people and greed led to this disaster.

How different is this from the situation of the first people of Alaska who rely on an unspoiled food chain to survive as they have for generations? Not very!

In Bristol Bay, big money is hoping to exploit minerals on the very edge of a healthy salmon fishery.  A man-made disaster stemming from pollution from the proposed Pebble Mining project would forever change the lifestyle of the people who depend on a healthy Bristol Bay for their livelihood.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that a study published this week in the science journal Nature by University of Washington biologists highlights the ability of salmon to adapt to natural changes to their environment.

The study said that although they’re all the same species, Bristol Bay sockeye comprise hundreds of populations, each adapted to its own river, stream or tributary. Some of the populations return from the sea after one year. Others spend two years foraging in the ocean before heading back to spawn. Some sockeye flourish when it’s cold and wet. Others do better in hot, dry years.

That variety means the species as a whole survives and thrives, even when bad weather or a shortage of food in the ocean hammers individual populations.

This diversity even helps them survive man-made spills…

After the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, pink salmon that spawned near the shore were devastated by oil that smothered their eggs. But pinks that laid their eggs farther upstream escaped the toxic effect and were able to help the species rebound.

The pink salmon were lucky. The Exxon Valdez was a finite disaster and attempts to reverse its life-changing effects began immediately. People were eventually compensated for their loss.

But what about the ongoing damage being done to the chinook salmon fishery by the pollock trawlers? Will salmon returning to the Yukon-Kuskoquim watershed  be able to adapt and survive as their numbers are depleted year after year as bycatch of the pollock industry? If not, should the companies that have caused the loss of livelihood  for the people of the YK be expected to compensate fishermen for their loss?

This is a matter of balance. The  six CDQ non-profits benefit greatly from the pollock industry and the people of the YK  are shareholders of their particular CDQ, Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Assoc. (YDFDA) They have a stake in their non-profits being successful as they are charged to help economic growth in their member villages. Where does this trade off when you give up the fish for ‘economic development’ ? We have to believe the return of the salmon to their rivers is much more important to them than a paycheck from some ‘development’ project. Fishing is their way of life – it’s what they do.

Taking away their reason to get up in the morning, to make sure their boats and nets are ready in the spring, to follow the seasonal openings so they can fish every allowable minute, to prepare and store the fish for winter – they live to fish. What if the chinook can’t adapt and this way of life is taken away?

Resources that support the lives and lifestyles of our fellow human beings have been placed in a position where an accident caused by lack of industry or government regulation can destroy entire ecosystems. The ongoing exploitation of one resource in favor of another may be slowly destroying an ancient way of life.

We can’t take the risk Pebble Mine would bring to the healthy fishery in Bristol Bay and we must stop the damage the pollock industry is doing to the people of the Yukon-Kuskoquim watershed.

The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has opened our eyes to how little government or industry oversight is in place in  resource extraction.

We need to hold industry accountable and limit their access to resources that belong to the people, especially if extracting them threatens the lifestyle of  people fishing the ancestral waters in which they swim and living on the land they rest beneath.