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Bioengineered Fish Draw Local Opposition

by Judith Blake, Staff Reporter
The Seattle Times, September 19, 2002

A group of Seattle-area restaurants, grocers and seafood distributors has joined a national campaign against genetically engineered fish, the latest entrant in the debate surrounding bioengineered food.

So far, there is no genetically engineered fish on the market, but a Massachusetts company's application for federal approval of its biotech salmon has opponents here and across the country marshaling forces.

The Atlantic-species salmon being developed by Aqua Bounty Farms, a biotech firm, are implanted with a chinook-salmon gene that lets them grow at twice the normal rate. Advocates say this will help provide more fish in a world of growing demand but decreasing supply.

No Northwest fish farms have expressed an interest in the biotech salmon, said an Aqua Bounty official.

Opponents worry about the possible adverse impact of such salmon on wild-salmon stocks and on human health, though supporters say any problems can be minimized or eliminated with adequate testing and safeguards.

A news conference to announce the local opposition effort was scheduled for this morning at Ray's Boathouse restaurant, one of about 20 area businesses that have pledged not to buy or sell genetically engineered fish if it becomes available.

Some of the others include PCC Natural Markets, Queen Anne Thriftway and several other Thriftways, and restaurants Flying Fish and Fandango.

Nationwide, about 200 restaurants and other food-related companies have pledged to shun genetically engineered fish, said Lisa Ramirez, Seattle-based national coordinator of the campaign for Friends of the Earth, one of several organizations behind the push.

"A lot of the restaurants and stores are concerned about (preserving) wild salmon and about the health of their customers," said Ramirez. "A lot of people also are concerned about farmed fish in general."

The genetically engineered salmon, if approved, would be raised commercially as farmed fish.

That's the chief sticking point for Charles Ramseyer, executive chef at Ray's Boathouse, who is among those concerned that farmed salmon can escape their pens and interbreed with wild salmon, changing their genetic makeup.

Thousands of conventionally bred farmed fish have already done so.

"We have never sold farm-raised fish here at Ray's Boathouse," Ramseyer said. "We sell only wild fish."

Opponents also worry that escaped salmon would compete for food with already endangered wild salmon, putting them under even greater survival stress.

Ramirez pointed to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that genetically engineered fish in general could pose that problem. However, the report did not specifically consider the Aqua Bounty salmon.

The report also said genetically engineered fish have a low to moderate potential to cause allergic reactions in some people a concern often raised about genetically modified plant crops because the transferred genes could involve allergy-linked proteins.

Aqua Bounty vice president Joseph McGonigle said his company is addressing all of these concerns.

He said only sterilized salmon eggs would be sold to fish farms, potentially eliminating the possibility that the biotech salmon could interbreed with wild salmon. Tests are still under way to determine whether the pressurization system the company uses will sterilize every egg.

"We're quite confident we'll get 100 percent sterilization," McGonigle said, though Ramirez and some others doubt that's possible.

McGonigle also said only female eggs will be sold and that sterilized females, unlike most salmon, do not have the instinctive drive to return to their hatching grounds in a stream once they reach the ocean. This means they won't compete with wild salmon for stream habitat, he said.

As for allergy and other health issues, McGonigle said his company is still conducting tests to assess possible impacts and that they will have to pass FDA muster.

He said environmental and food-safety tests probably will be completed and submitted in about a year, after which the FDA will make a decision.

Judith Blake
Bioengineered Fish Draw Local Opposition
The Seattle Times, September 19, 2002

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