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Fish Factor: Frankenfish labeling advances in Congress

Posted: June 6, 2014 - 12:04am

If genetically modified salmon is approved by the federal government, it may be labeled as such. The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee last week passed the bipartisan Murkowski-Begich amendment requiring that consumers be advised of what they are buying.

During testimony, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) questioned if the so-called “Frankenfish” can even be called a real salmon.

“This takes a transgenic Atlantic salmon egg, which has genes from an ocean pout that is somewhat akin to an eel, and it combines with the genes of a Chinook salmon. I have questioned time and time again, why we would want to be messing with Mother Nature like this,” Murkowski said. “We are trying to invent a species that would grow quicker to out-compete our wild stocks. This experiment puts at risk the health of our fisheries not only in Alaska, but throughout the Pacific Northwest.”

“We’re not talking about GM corn or something else that is grown. We are talking about a species that moves, migrates, and breeds,” the senator stressed. “This is an experiment that if it went wrong could be devastating to the wild, healthy stocks that our farmers of the sea depend upon.”

The AquaAdvantage “Frankenfish,” created by a company called AquaBounty based in the U.S. and Panama, has been vying for Food & Drug Administration approval for two decades. The company has spent nearly $80 million on what would be the first genetically engineered animal to be approved for human consumption. Because the gene tweaking is considered a “veterinary procedure,” the fish will not be required to use any labeling identifying it as a man-made product.

Murkowski pointed out that more than 1.5 million people have written in opposition to FDA approval and 65 supermarkets (including Safeway, Kroger, Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Target) have pledged not to carry it. Salmon farmers also are distancing themselves from the fish; both the International Salmon Farmers Association and the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance have issued statements in opposition to GM salmon.

AquaBounty CEO Ronald Stotish called critics of the fish “bullies” and “terrorists” in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article last week.

Murkowski said, “We are not doing anything more than telling the FDA if you move forward with a wrongheaded decision to allow for the first time ever this genetically engineered salmon for human consumption, at a bare minimum you’ve got to stick a label on it that says so.”

Sen. Jeff Merkly, a Democrat from Oregon, agreed.

“Whether we look at this from the viewpoint of a citizen’s right to know what they’re buying, or we look at it from the viewpoint of ensuring a healthy industry that’s so important to our states, this amendment is absolutely 100 percent right on,” Merkly said. “And if you buy salmon, you should buy 100 percent salmon.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, added: “If something is a GMO food, we ought to know what it is. I don’t want to eat a Dolly-burger and I don’t want to eat a Frankenfish.”

A voice vote on the Murkowski-Begich amendment passed with only one dissenter. It now goes to the Senate floor as part of the agriculture spending bill.

 

Words matter

Whoever represents Alaska in Congress needs to be seafood savvy, as nearly 85 percent of Alaska’s total harvest falls under federal jurisdiction, meaning in waters from three to 200 miles offshore.

That’s a lot of poundage hauled aboard, but when it comes to fish delivered to the docks, state waters win the day. And the difference between ‘volume’ and ‘landings’ is often confused.

“You can imagine the number of deliveries, for example, that happen in Bristol Bay in the month of July — every setnetter and every drift gillnetter who is pitching off fish, that’s a delivery, a landing. And there are hundreds of those happening every day. But you contrast that with the volume or poundage of fish harvested, that’s another thing,” explained Kurt Iverson, the Research and Planning project leader at the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.

Likewise, there is an important distinction between fishery poundage and values. Some are high volume with relatively lower value on a per pound basis, and vice versa.

“A good example of a fishery that has very high value but relatively low volume is sablefish. Compare that to other fisheries and the total poundage harvested may not measure up, but the value is very high,” Iverson said.

Furthermore, when people talk about the overall value of Alaska’s fisheries, they use the exvessel, or dockside numbers. But that represents only 40 percent of what it is really worth — it’s the first wholesale value that gives a more accurate number after the first fish sales are made by seafood processors.

Iverson said fisheries terms can easily be misconstrued, and it is important to make distinctions.

“Not only for someone who is expressing it, but for a reader. Are you considering a value or poundage or a harvest, a delivery or something else?” he said. “We all have a responsibility to be clear about what we’re talking about, and our audiences should be aware that there are differences.”

 

Shell shocks

The shells of crabs, shrimp, lobsters and other crustaceans are being turned into plastics for food packaging and more. The shells contain a compound called chitin, which is also found in insects and fungi, and it is one of the most abundant biodegradable materials in the world. Estimates say more than 25 billion tons of chitin from seafood is thrown away each year.

Bankrolled by funds from their government, scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research are turning chitin into so called “active” packaging aimed at reducing plastics made from petrochemicals. The products can range from hard plastics to thin films that cover food products. The food sector alone, including beverages, accounts for nearly two-thirds of global packaging from non-biodegradable plastics.

Chitin has a rich research history for use in agriculture, medicine and other fields. As a seed treatment added to soil, it works as a pesticide, increases blooms in plants and extends the life of cut flowers and Christmas trees. The U.S. Forest Service has conducted research on chitin to control pathogens in pine trees and increase resin pitch outflow to resist pine beetle infestation.

Chitin also can be used in water filtration, as it causes fine sediment particles to bind together. Tests show that chitin combined with sand filtration removes up to 99 percent of turbidity in water.

Chitin’s hemostatic properties cause blood to clot rapidly, and it is used in bandages by the U.S. and the UK militaries.

Scientists also have recently developed a polyurethane coating that heals its own scratches. When added to traditional coatings to protect paint on cars, for example, the chitin reacts chemically to ultraviolet light and smoothes scratches in less than one hour.

 

Crossing the bar

Alaska lost one of its finest fishery writers with the untimely death last week of Bob Tkacz. Bob covered seafood industry issues in Juneau for 33 years and published the weekly Laws for the Sea newsletter during the legislative sessions. He was well known (and feared) for asking tough questions, having the facts at his fingertips, and tenaciously demanding answers. As one pol put it: “Bob was someone you wanted covering the other guy’s press conference.”

Bob was a friend and mentor for 25 years, and saying he will be missed is an understatement.

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