Fish & Wildlife | Ecotrope

Trick or technology? Nuclear risks and frankenfish

Ecotrope | March 25, 2011 9:33 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:39 p.m.

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Is "virtually no chance" good enough to ensure genetically modified salmon don't interact with wild salmon? Timothy Egan argues AquaBounty's "frankenfish" is just another example of how people think they can trick nature.

Is "virtually no chance" good enough to ensure genetically modified salmon don't interact with wild salmon? Timothy Egan argues AquaBounty's "frankenfish" is just another example of how people think they can trick nature.

In case you missed it last week, Timothy Egan wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times pooling Japan’s nuclear disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, and AquaBounty’s genetically engineered ‘frankenfish’ under the umbrella of ways people think they can trick nature:

“It is human to think we can trick nature, or do it one better. It is human to think a tsunami would never knock out a nuclear plant, a hurricane would never bury a city and a deepwater oil drill would never poison a huge body of water. In the gods of technology we trust.

Until they fail. And then, we feel helpless and small and wonder what they — or we — were thinking.

The fate of wild salmon and a panic over power plants that no longer answer to human commands would not seem to be interlinked. But they are, in the belief that the parts of the world that have been fouled, or found lacking, can be engineered to our standards — without consequence.”

The part I find a little chilling, and the part Egan draws from to make the connection between unlikely engineering failures and the frankenfish, is AquaBounty’s claim in defending the genetically modified salmon: There is “virtually no possibility of escape and interaction with the wild population,” company officials say.

One one hand, what better assurance could the company offer after more than a decade of testing this fast-growing salmon hybrid? After all, we’re already growing salmon unnaturally in farms and hatcheries. And, as Egan notes, we already grow and eat genetically modified corn and soybeans. The FDA says the fish is safe to eat and poses “little risk” to the environment.

But on the other hand, opponents argue the frankenfish takes genetic engineering to a new, riskier level. The AquaAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon spliced with genes from the chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout, which makes the fish grow up in 18 months instead of three years.

As Egan puts it: “Voila: fast fish from the factory, without the hassle of habitat preservation.”

What happens on the very slim chance that the supposedly sterile female fish escape into the wild? Egan and several Northwest lawmakers say they don’t want to take that chance. There are two bills in Congress aimed at stopping the Food and Drug Administration from approving the genetically engineered fish.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who’s co-sponsoring both bills, said she’s worried about the potential threat to the Northwest salmon industry. Even if the FDA approves the fish, she and others argue, the company should be required to label it “transgenic” so people know what they’re buying.

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