Alaska, Business, Food, Health, Maritime, Opinion, Politics, Science

Seward Fishing Community dismayed by FDA approving genetically modified fish

Visitors at Seward Resort pose with the wild fish they caught in, and around Resurrection Bay this summer. Heidi Zemach file photo.
Visitors at Seward Resort pose with the wild fish they caught in, and around Resurrection Bay. Heidi Zemach file photo.

By Heidi Zemach for SCN-

Word that the Food and Drug Administration had approved the human consumption of a genetically modified animal for the first time ever Thursday, the dreaded “Frankenfish,” traveled fast in Alaska. Several Seward residents SCN spoke with were not happy about its implications, either for the Alaska fishing industry, or for consumers.

In a town that prides itself on the plentiful supply of wild Alaska salmon, halibut, cod, and other species, and on supporting sport and commercial fishing, that’s not surprising.

Rhonda Hubbard, the owner and manager of J&R Fisheries, said the announcement was made Thursday night at the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle, during an event that the national fishermen’s group was hosting.

The reaction by attendees, she said, was shock, disbelief, and depression. “And you could just hear this groan in the room. It’s really shocking and it just really felt devastating to most people in the room… because all wild salmon, and all wild fish could be subject to that.” Those at the expo, most of who are involved  in the Alaska harvest of wild seafood, have been dealing with issues such as the overstocking of wild salmon, among others, and the idea of having to compete with fast-growing GMO salmon is hard, she said.

“We aren’t extremely sure of the health effects of genetically modified salmon, and it’s not benefiting Alaskans in any real way,” said Seward’s Griffin Plush, a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who is studying Political Science. As a member of Alaska Youth for Environmental Action while in high school, Plush learned how to lobby his representatives in Juneau, and Washington D.C. beginning with the issue of Genetically Modified Fish, and specifically on Alaska requiring them to be clearly labeled as such.  That position received considerable support in Alaska, he said, particularly among the Alaska’s Washington DC delegation, including former Alaska Senator Mark Begich, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Rep. Don Young. The Alaska delegation has strongly condemned the recent FDA approval.

Griffin Plush, photo credit to Kylie...Singh
Griffin Plush, photo credit to Kylee Singh

Plush remains concerned that without a federal labeling requirement for these new fish species, American consumers won’t know whether they’re eating farmed salmon, a genetically modified fish (which is also farmed), or wild Alaska salmon.

“People already don’t know when they’re eating farmed Salmon or Alaska salmon,” he said. “Because there’s no requirement, people think they’re eating wild salmon when it’s farmed salmon.” Studies have shown that farmed salmon are lacking nutritionally compared with wild salmon, with lower protein content and healthy fatty oils.

Plush also fears that the larger fish, which will be available year-round to consumers will compete in the marketplace with the high-quality, wild Alaska salmon such as those caught here in Seward, or Prince William Sound.  “It’s an unnecessary risk when we don’t know the health effects of genetically modified salmon. While these fish currently are (contained) in land-based facilities, in Canada and Panama, it would be devastating to the natural salmon runs if they ever got out.”

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“We already have farmed salmon so it’s not going to change that,” said Bob Linville, a longtime Seward commercial fisherman. ” But they do escape and they do show up in spawning streams.  This is really scary for the wild salmon because they (AquaBounty) make claims that they’re all sterilized females and they won’t make any escapes due to being grown out in land-based tanks. But I don’t believe any of that. I think they’re going to get loose into the wild, either accidentally or intentionally, and here you have a salmon that’s going to show up in a stream, it’s going to grow twice as fast as the others, totally disrupt the natural selection of spawning, and totally disrupt the fish. This is bad for sport fishing, bad for charter fishing, bad for commercial fishing, bad for subsistence fishing, just plain bad for wild salmon as a species.” Linville says he’s also concerned about the lack of specific labeling requirements: Mislabeling is already a chronic problem and hurts our markets.  The reason AquaBounty wants to avoid labeling is to get in on the wild salmon mislabeling fraud that already exists for their own profit.  Some people will avoid salmon entirely because of it.”

He said these genetically-modified species (with genes of an eel-like fish called an ocean-pout combined with a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon, and Atlantic salmon genes) aren’t really salmon at all.  They’re something never before seen in life.

Captain Andy Mezirow of Crackerjack Charters speaks to the Seward Chamber of Commerce. Heidi Zemach photo.
Captain Andy Mezirow, of Crackerjack Charters speaks to the Seward Chamber of Commerce about fishing issues. Heidi Zemach file photo.

Andy Mezirow, a Seward charter boat captain and North Pacific Fishery Management Council representative, is worried too.

“ I’m not a big fan of that,” he said of the FDA decision. “I think it’s a huge step to take to genetically alter animals for human consumption. It’s a big leap from what has happened before, which was to genetically modify corn and other crops to prevent disease. You’re introducing a new creature that didn’t develop because of evolution. The big thing for me is we don’t know what could happen.”   As an example, he wonders what might happen to the food chain if the fish are plucked out of their tanks and consumed by a bird, or if some fish or their eggs escape with the discharge of the tank water, and make it out into nearby streams or rivers, or what effects might be over time on humans consuming a fish bred with growth hormones  “I think its irresponsible (of the FDA ) to say it’s safe because nothing unsafe has happened yet,” Mezirow added.

Captain Mezirow shares the concerns others about the potential of the new brand of fish glutting the market, lowering the price for Alaska’s commercial fishermen. He’s has already seen it happen with farmed (Norwegian and Chilean) salmon. Currently, wild salmon can’t be labelled “Organic” because there’s no tracking of what fish may eat out in the ocean or streams, he said, while farmed salmon can be. “So people think they’re buying something healthy when they’re not, and don’t realize it’s the opposite.”

He also finds disturbing the fact that FDA approval was given only to a single GMO corporation. “You’re essentially given all the rights to one corporation to do this. It’s all about benefiting one company over an industry that benefits tens of thousands of people.”

Mezirow recognizes that many corporations are trying to figure out new ways to create and feed growing populations across the globe. But he doesn’t think precedents like this should be rushed forward at this time.

Hubbard agrees, and hopes the public will get better educated on what they’re consuming.

“I’m just afraid that it’s really going to dupe the public, and it does bridge along the lines of bioethics.” Some types of new bio-engineering advances, she said, including Frankenfish, are just plain scary. “It’s not a good thing for the public, or definitely for our salmon industry.”

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