On the day before Juneau, Alaska chef Lionel Uddipa was crowned the King of American Seafood at the Great American Seafood Cook-off in New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico, the worst of news for the 49th state’s commercial fishing industry came from the East Coast.
AquaBounty Technologies, the company producing genetically modified (GM) salmon, announced the sale of its first batch of AquAdvantage salmon. The news was quietly slipped into the company’s annual earnings report.
After “receiving regulatory approval from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency last year, (the company) sold approximately five tons of fresh AquAdvantage® salmon fillets at market price to customers in Canada,” the report said.
Alaska’s Congressional delegation fought unsuccessfully to block what it calls these “Frankenfish” from entering the North American market. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, then turned her efforts to trying to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to at least hang a tag on the fish saying it had been genetically altered.
The FDA refused, saying the salmon was safe. Her dispute with the FDA later became a target for FactCheck.org.
“…Murkowski says she opposes federal approval of genetically engineered salmon ‘for the health of both consumers and fisheries.’ But there is no scientific evidence that suggests GE salmon will pose a significant risk to either,” FactCheck.org reported in March.
“Murkowski claims GE salmon may ‘interbreed with the wild stocks, and thus perhaps destroy them.’ But GE salmon have been rendered sterile — meaning they can’t interbreed with wild salmon stocks. Geographic and physical confinement measures also limit the likelihood that the GE fish will escape and survive.”
The FactCheck article, a part of its SciCheck operation, is long and technical, but ends with this:
“In sum, GE salmon is a certified Atlantic salmon that is as safe to eat as a non-GE salmon, according to the available scientific evidence, and poses little threat to wild salmon populations – especially those that live near Alaska. As a result, Murkowski’s criticisms of the fish are unfounded.”
While genetically engineered salmon – whether it is labeled GE, GM or GMO – is not a threat to wild salmon, it is clearly an economic threat to Alaska salmon producers.
“With AquAdvantage salmon, market weight of around 2 to 3 kilograms can be achieved in 18 to 24 months, as opposed to three years,” TheFishSite.com reports. “However faster growth is not the only benefit….AquAdvantage salmon can be grown domestically, in containment close to land and populations. This provides a number of benefits.”
Those benefits are obvious. Markets are closer. Fresh salmon are available to those markets year round. And salmon production in closed systems silences complaints that salmon farms pollute surrouding waters.
AquaBounty in July announced it had paid $14 million in cash to the Bell Fish Company to buy a fish farm in Albany, Indiana. Bell was running Indiana’s largest recirculating aquaculture system.
The plant is “AquaBounty’s first commercial-scale facility in the U.S. for growing GM AquAdvantage salmon,” reported Aquaculture North America – The Fish Farmer’s Magazine.
The story quoted AquaBounty CEO Ronald Stotish proclaiming the fish farm “will enable production of healthy Atlantic salmon, which will not require vaccines or antibiotics, in a sustainable and responsible manner close to domestic consumers.”
AquaBounty is expecting to have fish ready for market by 2019. The fish already sold in Canada came from an AquaBounty salmon farm reporter Eric Bender describes as in “the high rain forest of Panama.”
Writing in Ensia.com, an online magazine supported in part by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and described as “an independent, nonprofit magazine presenting new perspectives on environmental challenges,” Bender observed that AquaBounty’s biggest problem going forward would appear to be economics.
Recirculating aquaculture systems are expensive to operate. Bell sold to AquaBounty because it wasn’t making any money. AquaBounty is speculating that its faster growing, genetically engineered fish will change that.
“If AquaBounty can compete on cost, there will be some justification for promoting its product as ‘the world’s most sustainable salmon,'” Bender wrote. “In addition to requiring less feed, growing fish to market in Indiana or Prince Edward Island (Canada) can slash the high carbon costs of flying fish from Norway or Chile, two leading suppliers of farmed salmon in the U.S.”
Shades of 1990
Three decades ago, Alaska led opposition to salmon fish farming. The Alaska Legislature – guided by Republican Sen. Dick Eliason, a commercial fisherman from Sitka, and Democrat Speaker of the House Ben Grussendorf, a Sitka school teacher, eventually voted to ban the practice in the 49th state.
Grussendorf was the father of a commercial fisherman. He, Eliason and other lawmakers connected to commercial fishing interests feared fish farming would undermine markets for Alaska salmon.
After Grussendorf’s death, Rep. Bill Hudson, R-Juneau, told the Juneau Empire he and “Grussendorf worked together to keep fish farming out of Alaskan waters over the objections of some who hoped to profit from the new industry.
“‘We thought it would be a killer to the wild salmon industry we have here in Alaska.'”
Others had a different view. The former Anchorage Times, once the state’s largest and most influential newspaper, blasted the opponents of fish farming as self-serving.
“…’It is hard to imagine a more short-sighted and ludicrous move by the state to try to block progress and change,” the Times opined. “In a different time and in a different place, the 1990 edition of the Alaska Legislature may well have outlawed the horseless carriage and flying machine. No matter that other nations are beginning to eat Alaska’s lunch by selling pen reared salmon to eager markets around the world. No matter that there is no evidence that properly managed aquaculture would endanger wild species and wild runs. Alaska may not like it, but it can’t forever keep its commercial fisheries in
the horse and buggy days.”
Salmon farmers were in 1990 producing 271,000 metric tons of salmon, a small volume of salmon at the time. That was destined to change.
Brent Paine, a Oregon State University oceanography student working on a master’s degree, served at the time as in intern on the states Alaska Finfish Farming Task Force and later authored a 229-page historical analysis of the state’s battle against aquaculture. It contained a warning.
“If Alaska intends to remain a global seafood power, it cannot afford to
ignore what is happening in the rest of the world,” he wrote in the conclusions at the end of that report. “The Alaska salmon industry currently is not providing what the market demands: high quality, fresh seafood on a year-round basis. Economic analysis of this situation would lead one to conclude that the Alaska seafood industry would benefit by supplementing wild production with farmed products.”
Paine noted the economic crisis American automakers were at the time facing and cautioned that the “failure to meet the responsibility of creating rational policies can result in missed opportunities and in the worst case, tragedy. We all remember how, in the early 1970s, Detroit automakers ignored the underlying trends in the marketplace in favor of short-term profits. Finally they lost so much of their domestic market share to higher quality Japanese imports they were forced to seek protection from the federal government through import quotas. Alaska currently is the General Motors of salmon producers.”
Paine had grown up setnetting salmon near Seldovia at the tip of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. His background was as a commercial fisherman, but he feared the state was destined to suffer economically if it chose to ignore market realities.
“Allowing one industry to exercise veto power over another seems like third world politics,” he wrote. “In a sense it is given Alaska’s history of fisheries development. On one level, the controversy is a classic example of an established industry attempting to protect itself from new competing technologies. Even if proponents were able to refute all arguments and prove that fish farming in Alaska would have no negative impacts on traditional fisheries, it is likely many would still oppose this emerging industry, in part because it involves new technology, new values, and new people.”
Today Alaska is shipping fish to China to be processed and battling to find cheap labor to reduce its costs of production in an effort to survive in a market that has been taken over by fish farmers.
The 271,000 metric tons of farmed salmon of 1990 is now on the order of 2.4 million metric tons of farmed salmon, according to the World Wildlife Federation, which calls salmon aquaculture “the fastest growing food production system in the world.”
Seven out of every 10 salmon sold in the market today comes from a fish farm. Of the “wild” fish, Alaska harvests just slightly more than Russia and Japan.
“Since 1996, Japanese and Russian wild salmon catches have exceeded North American wild salmon catches,” writes Alaska economist Gunnar Knapp. “Note that Japanese catches are generally ranched chum salmon.”
A lot of the Alaska salmon is also ranched. Though Alaska banned farmed salmon, which are raised in pens until harvested, it allows salmon ranching, which raises young salmon to various sizes in tanks and pens, before turning them loose to the sea.
The state’s 28 salmon hatcheries now account for, on average, about a third of Alaska’s annual wild-salmon harvest, but 75 percent of those fish are low-value pinks primarily destined for cans, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual report on what it calls fisheries enhancement.
And though the other 25 percent of hatchery fish comprise chum, sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon which can compete with farmed fish in the market for pricey filets, the Alaska hatchery fish suffer from the same market liability as all Alaska salmon:
The fish come in a rush in a couple of months in the summer. In the crush to catch and process so many fish in a short time, the handling is not always the best and the quality deteriorates. But even when the quality is maintained, the fish have to be frozen and stockpiled.
“Fresh salmon,” the most valuable salmon, are available from Alaska for only a few months each year. Alaska has tried to carve out a market niche for “wild” salmon, but the wild salmon marketers are fighting an uphill battle against an ever-growing number of salmon farmers just as aggressively marketing their product.
And now comes the AquaBounty with fast-growing genetically modified salmon. Alaska interests might find more traction here. Technological advances scare a lot of people these days.
The “Frankenfish” label might be enough to make some Americans, if not Canadians, turn away from genetically modified fish at the supermarket. But it’s a gamble. The public opinion of the masses could also go the opposite way.
“Americans have a certain fascination with ‘food of the future,'” noted the website TalkingFish.org, a product of the New England-based Conservation Law Foundation. “Take your general sci-fi entertainment: from the Jetsons’ 3D printed food to the recent Star Wars movie…, the entertainment industry has long played with the idea of food production. And in such a short time span, our society has already achieved some of the dreamed-up innovations of the sci-fi world.
“Ultimately, humans are always thinking of new and innovative ways to produce food for the earth’s exploding populations. There will certainly always be conflicting opinions and a battle over what’s right and wrong to eat, but with the demand for seafood increasing every year, coupled with changing ocean conditions from carbon pollution, GMO fish might very well become a mainstream source of food in the future.”
If that becomes the case, the Alaska commercial fishing industry could be in more trouble tomorrow than the Alaska oil industry is today.