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Murkowski, Begich to fight 'Frankenfish'

Sens. filed legislation against genetically engineered salmon

Posted: October 20, 2011 - 12:07am

Alaska’s U.S. Senators filed two separate pieces of legislation in a pincer movement to crush the production of genetically engineered salmon in the U.S.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is working to ban interstate commerce of engineered salmon through his Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the United States Act, released on Oct. 17. On the same day, Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced an amendment to the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill that would “prohibit funds from being used by the Federal Drug Administration to approve applications for genetically engineered fish, or ‘Frankenfish’,” according to a joint press release from the senators.

Alaska’s senators, among others, use the term ‘Frankenfish’ to describe genetically engineered fish, playing off the writer Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’s monster, a creature stitched together and animated from parts of multiple corpses. Shelly’s monster, which was a comment on the hubris and ambition of modern industrial man, escapes its creator’s control.

Alaska’s delegation has fired its latest salvo against federal approval of engineered fish in response to an application from AquaBounty, a Massachusetts-based company, for Federal approval of its AquAdvantage genetically engineered salmon — Atlantic salmon with Chinook salmon genes that cause modified fish to “grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon,” according to AquaBounty’s website.

“There is just too much at risk here. The public has expressed serious concerns about the introduction of Frankenfish into the nation’s food supply including potential threats to the environment and public health, and economic impacts on producers of sustainable wild salmon,” Begich said.

AquaBounty’s spokesperson declined to comment. However, the biotech firm’s website states that “[AquAdvantage Salmon] will be grown as sterile, all-female populations in land-based facilities... cannot escape or reproduce in the wild and pose no threat to wild salmon populations.”

Mark Vinsel, Executive Director for United Fisherman of Alaska, isn’t convinced. “[Engineered salmon] are creatures inspired by nature to get out and about and procreate, even with genetic manipulation, that is what they are programed to do,” he said.

Even if AquAdantage Salmon are unable to breed, the Atlantic-Chinook cross could crowd out natural salmon runs “if they escape and cause trouble in our steams,” Vinsel said. Though not genetically engineered, Asian carp is an example of a non-native fish escaping aquaculture, Vinsel said. Two species of Asian carp imported into the southern United States and used to keep aquaculture facilities clean and to provide fresh fish for fish markets escaped into the wild in the 1980s moving northward into the Mississippi and Illinois River systems. The carp now threaten to enter the Great Lakes.

Genetic engineering, or genetic modification is the direct manipulation of an organism’s deoxyribonucleic acid — DNA. DNA’s double helix, discovered by Nobel Prize winners James D. Watson and Francis Crick, holds four bases, molecules with the names Adenine, Guanine, Thymine, Cytosine. Scientists manipulate the sequence of these bases to engineer new genetic information. In the case of the AquAdvantagesalmon, the changes cause rapid growth. Bacteria were the first genetically engineered organisms, in 1973.

While Begich’s act specifically targets modified salmon, both senators oppose all genetically engineered fish, Begich spokeswoman Julie Hasquet said.

“In Alaska we’re more concerned about salmon,” she said, however “we’ve attacked this from so many fronts. Our position is ‘no genetically altered fish.’ Why would you monkey with nature like that?”

Though a ban on modified fish in the U.S. would not legally stop other countries from pursuing the biotechnology, Hasquet said the hope is that the strong reaction by the U.S. in opposition would sway other countries. A statement titled “Organizations and Businesses Endorsing Senators Murkowski and Begich’s Bipartisan Amendment to Bar FDA from Approving Genetically Engineered Fish” had 93 signatures as of Oct 7.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276.

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