Begich Chairs Hearing on Genetically Engineered Salmon

Alaska Senator Mark Begich yesterday got to use the power of his Commerce subcommittee chairmanship to aim some barbs at genetically engineered salmon. Begich and Senator Lisa Murkowski have introduced a bill that would ban interstate commerce of what they’re calling “frankenfish.”

Begich says he’s concerned because the Food and Drug Administration, is the agency that’s deciding whether to approve the fish. Begich says that’s not an agency that typically grapple with questions about the health of fish stocks and the environment.

As you can imagine it’s very difficult to assess the environmental impacts from fish that have never existed before now. And the FDA is now asked to carry out an impossible task of trying to assess the food safety and the environmental impacts of genetically engineered fish.

The president of the company that wants to market genetically engineered, or GE, salmon held his product up for scrutiny. Ron Stotish runs Aqua-Bounty Technologies Incorporated, which is trying to get FDA approval to sell the first genetically engineered fish as human food in the U.S.

Stotish says fish farms all over the country could benefit from his product.

What you can accomplish by selective stock enhancement or breeding in 25 years we can accomplish in a single generation. We can characterize the nature of the change, we can specifically measure the change, and we can basically understand the implication of the change on production.

The Aqua-Bounty salmon are genetically altered for faster growth and increased survival rates. But George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy’s Aquaculture Program Director, testified there’s no way to make sure the GE fish don’t mix with wild salmon.

What is at stake here is no less than the future of fish, natural ecosystems, and our seafood supply. Now proponents of GE salmon would have us believe there’s no risk the fish will get out, and even if they do get out there’s no risk the GE salmon will take hold or reproduce with native salmon populations. I would urge the committee to seriously question those assumptions.

The Ocean Conservancy wants more involvement by the National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies with expertise in fisheries biology, rather than leaving it up to the FDA. They want what Leonard calls a modern, environmental risk assessment, and until that’s done, they want a moratorium on “frankenfish” along the lines Begich is calling for.

A fish geneticist, John Epifanio with the Illinois Natural History Survey, testified that there’s a long history of non-native, invasive fish species overrunning local fisheries and he says there’s no proof that the GE salmon wouldn’t do the same thing.

“Salmon and other fishes are a little more difficult to control if escape occurs. More difficult than a cow or goat.  If Dolly the sheep for example escapes, we can go out in pick up truck and go find her,” Epifanio said.

“Alaskans would hunt it,” said Begich, prompting laughter from those at the hearing.

The only other member of Congress besides Begich to question the witnesses was Maine Republican Olympia Snowe. She questioned whether there’s a need for GE salmon given the recent successes of farmed fish.

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