Frankenfish

Photo courtesy H. Michael Miley, Flickr, Nov. 19, 2015

It is election season here in Alaska and we are seeing some not unexpected reactions from our congressional delegation starting with US Senator Lisa Murkowski who is up for reelection next year. She put on her best I am mad routine in November after the FDA approved AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption. http://www.businessinsider.com/fda-approves-gmo-salmon-2015-11

The claim is that this is the first genetically modified food from animals so approved. Note that genetically modified plants have been used and consumed since 1982. These fish are genetically modified by inserting a gene found in an eel into Atlantic salmon that does not allow the growth of the salmon to turn off as it normally does over time. The fish grow about four times as fast and as large as normal salmon. Opponents refer to the new fish as frankenfish and note that because they contain a gene found in an eel they are not really fish. This would be an overstatement, as there is significant genetic overlap between similar living things. For example, there is at least a 96% genetic overlap between humans and chimps.

Of course, this is in direct competition with commercially caught Alaskan wild salmon, hence Lisa’s opposition.

Interestingly enough, it is also in direct competition with farmed salmon in Chile, Canada and Scandinavia. The fish are to be grown in tanks in Canada and Panama. The tanks are specially filtered so as to not allow roe or milt to escape. The fish are raised as sterile which may or may not be problematic. But as we have seen elsewhere, life will always find a way.

If this product takes off as expected it will be yet one more nail in the protectionist coffin that Alaska commercial fishing built for itself. Note to everyone up here: protectionism never works. Economics always, always wins.

Also note that Canada, which supports healthy sport fish, commercial fish, and fish farming industries, does not seem to have a problem welcoming yet another competitor – GMO salmon – into their economic mix. Why are they better than Alaskans? Hint: They aren’t. They just understand economics better than our elected officials.

And Lisa is however foolishly, protecting her constituents.

Here in Alaska, this may be the game changer that finally ends the decades-long war between commercial fishing and everyone else who dips a hook, line or net in the water. I have written previously that the historic reaction of Alaskan commercial fishermen to any problem has been to lay claim to every single fish above what would be minimum escapement in various rivers and streams, and use the political process to protect themselves from any and all in-state competition. For an example of the continuing war, take a look at the multiple proposals for the Board of Fish meeting on Cook Inlet fishing early 2016. http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fisheriesboard.proposalbook

So what should we do up here? First thing would be to start converting commercial fishing permits into a few acres / square miles of pens for farming of Pacific salmon species. Turn as many commercial fishermen into ranchers rather than hunter-gatherers. This would have the extra added attractions of allowing continual catch and sale of Pacific salmon species worldwide, just like the Chileans are doing. Second would be to put far more salmon into local rivers and streams, seeing if we can actually define what maximum escapement really is. This would pump up subsistence, personal use, sportfish and tourista catch rates.

Next, I would figure out how to genetically modify Pacific salmon species to grow just as fast as the GMO Atlantic salmon. Do it up here and do it better. I see commercial catch and sale of Alaskan salmon moving to a more boutique product – wild Alaskan salmon – aimed at a high end market like Copper River red salmon are early season in May.

Are we smart enough to do this? Probably. But making the transition will be difficult as long as US Senators and elected state politicians who ought to know better are beating their chests in high dudgeon opposing the fundamental change in the marketplace.