This seems counterintuitive. Why would we kill wild salmon if we are hoping to save them? The fact is, salmon are big business and consumers wield tremendous power through their purchasing decisions. When you buy and eat wild salmon, you are investing your dollars in our nation’s sustainable wild-salmon fisheries.
On June 4, U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland released a ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Pebble Partnership against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pebble has plans to build North America’s largest open-pit copper mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Alaska — home to North America’s largest remaining wild-salmon runs. The EPA’s involvement in Bristol Bay came at the request of tribes, commercial fishermen, sportsmen and business owners, but the court ruling earlier this month temporarily keeps efforts to protect Bristol Bay through the Clean Water Act on hold.
So what can be done in the meantime to protect this world-class resource?
First, educate your family and friends about wild salmon.
This spring, in partnership with commercial and sport fishermen, Alaska Native residents, chefs and conservationists, we completed a national tour of “The Breach,” a documentary film about the history and future of our last great wild-salmon runs. As a filmmaker and former Alaska salmon fishing guide, and a chef who serves wild salmon, we are both motivated by wild salmon economically. But it’s more than that.
We, like most people living in this part of the world, revere salmon as the iconic keystone species they are. They’re not simply a product to be pumped out of a factory — they are the very lifeblood for 137 different creatures when they return to our rivers and streams with the ocean’s nutrients inside them. They are an irreplaceable part of our Northwest landscape — they’re even inside the trees. And yet their future here remains uncertain.
As “King of Fish” author David R. Montgomery says in the documentary film, “We haven’t done a particularly good job of protecting the resource when it comes to wild salmon.” That’s true.
Historically, European and American settlers overfished wild salmon until their numbers crashed. Worse, salmon spawning rivers were destroyed when they were dammed, polluted and scoured by rapacious logging and mining practices. Hatcheries and open-net-pen fish farms designed to mitigate this damage have in the long run actually caused more.
Thankfully, there are some healthy runs of wild salmon left — and great strides under way — such as the removal of the two Elwha River dams, which provide real hope for seeing wild salmon return. But of all the fully sustainable wild-salmon runs remaining in North America, none are as strong or as vital as the runs in Bristol Bay in Alaska.
Unfortunately, instead of listening to science and the opinions of 65 percent of Alaskans, the Pebble Limited Partnership decided to sue the EPA and delay the protection process that millions of Americans have asked for.
Within weeks, more than 50 million wild sockeye salmon will return to Bristol Bay — the most in decades. Alaskan salmon are protected by the most stringent management practices in the world. In fact, protection of salmon was mandated by law in Alaska’s constitution in 1959.
When we purchase wild salmon, we’re purchasing a food source that is the same as it’s been for millennia — fed by the krill and currents of the open ocean. It’s nutritious and sustainable — and in Bristol Bay alone, provides 14,000 jobs on the West Coast, to the tune of $1.5 billion to the American economy. That simply can’t be said about other non-wild salmon options in the marketplace.
The choices we make with our forks and our dollars will affect what remains for future generations. If we demand wild salmon on our plates, we are demanding healthy habitat where wild salmon can thrive in perpetuity. And wild Bristol Bay sockeye can be purchased year-round, flash frozen or canned, with the same nutrients, quality and flavor as the day it was pulled out of the water — for a price affordable to most.
At the end of “The Breach,” Montgomery finishes his statement about human interaction with wild salmon by telling us, “If we don’t get Alaska right, we may have a clean sweep of getting it wrong.”
So what can else can we do?
Telling the Obama administration how we feel about wild salmon in Bristol Bay is the next best thing. But fundamentally, if we revere wild salmon — as 90 percent of us say we do here in the Pacific Northwest — we need to pick up our fork and insist they remain, by eating them.
A writer and director, Mark Titus recently directed “The Breach,” an award-winning documentary about wild Pacific salmon. Tom Douglas, a chef and owner of a diverse group of Seattle restaurants, co-produced “The Breach.”
WASHINGTON — Every summer since 1979, Kim Hubert has fished for sockeye salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. It’s a family business in tiny Togiak that has, from time to time, also employed his wife and three children.
Hubert and his 21-year-old daughter work the nets now. They’re small permit holders who may catch and sell thousands of salmon in their nets each year, depending on the success of the run.
“We’ve got a fish camp out there, we enjoy the people and the bay and the work,” said Hubert, 58, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Eagle River. “Some years we lose a few bucks, and some years we make a few.”
They and other fishermen have been casting a wary eye on Washington, where the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether AquaBounty, a Massachusetts-based company with a lab on Prince Edward Island in Canada and growing facilities in Panama, may sell genetically engineered salmon to consumers in the United States.
More than 33,000 fishermen, environmentalists, food safety advocates and others have written to the FDA with concerns about the agency’s preliminary findings. Among the worries is that the genetically engineered fish might escape and mix with wild salmon. The company says that’s unlikely, not only because the fish are sterile but also because of its production process.
But there’s a reason that Alaska bans salmon fish farms in the state, the Sitka Conservation Society, an environmental group in southeast Alaska, said in its letter to the FDA. They fear that the company will expand to the U.S., where the fish would be closer to native salmon populations.”
These farms pollute water with concentrated fish waste and feed, spread sea lice and ultimately lead to escapement and interbreeding,” the organization said. “If genetically modified salmon are permitted, it will be only a matter of time before they are muddling the pure wild population in Alaska.”
Mostly, though, fishermen in Alaska fear that the new, faster-growing farmed fish would threaten their livelihood eventually by flooding the market with cheap fish. They’re also pressing for the AquaBounty salmon to be labeled as genetically engineered because they think that their wild-caught, more expensive product is superior. They want no confusion in the marketplace.”
In some ways I felt threatened,” Hubert said. “The threat may not be immediate, but I think down the line there could be some repercussions. We’ve had a lot of issues with labeling, and the ability (of consumers) to choose and know where the fish come from: what kind of stocks, whether they’re farmed or wild fish.”
The AquaBounty fish are Atlantic salmon that have been genetically altered with growth genes from a Chinook salmon and a sea eel. That makes them grow faster than other farmed Atlantic salmon, although they don’t get any bigger than regular salmon.
The FDA issued a preliminary finding in late December that the fish, known as the AquAdvantage Salmon, is as safe as eating conventional Atlantic salmon and that there’s a reasonable certainty of no harm in consuming it. The agency also issued a draft environmental assessment that there’s little chance of environmental harm from farming the fish.
However, after pressure from Congress — especially from Alaska lawmakers — the FDA in February extended the public comment period on its findings by 60 days. People have until April 26 to weigh in, and after that the agency will decide whether to issue a final report or pursue a more comprehensive environmental impact statement.
AquaBounty executives aren’t currently granting interviews. The company’s last public statement came in mid-February, when the FDA announced that it would extend the comment period. AquaBounty Chief Executive Officer Ron Stotish said at the time that they weren’t pleased with the delay.
Some food safety advocates are pushing for the FDA to do a full environmental review. They’re also petitioning the agency to consider the AquaBounty fish as a food additive rather than as an animal drug. The FDA uses its animal drug process to consider the safety of all potential genetically modified animals sold as food.
That change would make the approval process more transparent, as well as focus on the safety of the salmon as food, said Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food & Water Watch. It joined Consumers Union, which is the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, and the nonprofit Center for Food Safety to petition the FDA.”
We just think it’s really deficient on the food front,” Lovera said. “What do we really know about allergies? What do we know about nutrition profile? That stuff’s really sketchy in that application that they put in. And we’d like to see a lot more of that, considering you’re going to eat the whole thing.”
People and animals already consume plenty of genetically modified grains, which aren’t required to be labeled in the U.S. A ballot measure requiring such labeling failed recently in California.
But the fish are the first genetically engineered animals being considered for human consumption in the U.S., and the approval process is being closely watched in the biotech field.
There’s a huge market for heart-healthy fish: Salmon is the second most popular seafood consumed in the U.S., behind tuna. And an estimated 91 percent of the seafood consumed in this country is imported; about half of that is from aquaculture.
Even if the AquaBounty fish is approved, however, supermarkets won’t be flooded with genetically engineered fish anytime soon, said Gregory Jaffe, the director of biotechnology at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization. Jaffe was on the FDA advisory panel that reviewed the safety of the salmon in 2010 and found no cause for alarm.
AquaBounty would have to reapply to the FDA to expand operations.
“They talked about hundreds of tons of salmon a year. We import hundreds of thousands of tons of salmon a year,” Jaffe said. “So maybe it’ll be slightly easier to eat one of these salmon steaks than to win the lottery. But if someone wanted to find one of these salmon steaks out there to eat, it’s going to take a little effort.
“That hasn’t stopped lawmakers from Western states from fighting the FDA findings — or at a minimum, seeking a requirement that genetically engineered salmon be labeled. Consumer groups are making the same push.
“Any fish that is labeled as wild-caught, or Alaskan, might see some of its market actually go up,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist for Consumers Union. “Since this will not be labeled, people would not know whether the regular salmon they’re buying is engineered or not.
“In his mid-February statement, AquaBounty’s Stotish noted that no new facts had been introduced since the FDA’s findings late last year and that the company doesn’t think the additional comment period “materially affects our chances for approval.”
“There has been neither new information nor a clear legal or regulatory issue raised by the FDA since that time,” he said in the statement.
AquaBounty says in its press materials that it wants its fish to be labeled “Atlantic salmon.” The company says the nutritional and biological composition of its AquAdvantage Salmon is identical to Atlantic salmon, and therefore doesn’t require additional labeling based on its method of production.
The company notes that it supports voluntary branding by the farmers who grow its salmon, to identify what it calls “the environmentally friendly benefits of this product.”
An FDA spokeswoman, Theresa Eisenman, said a decision hadn’t yet been made regarding labeling AquAdvantage Salmon.
The FDA since 1992 has considered bioengineered foods to be no different from other foods “in any meaningful or uniform way.” The agency supports voluntary labeling that provides consumers with such information, however.
The Food and Drug Administration has given their approval, pending a 60 day public debate, of the AquAdvantage Salmon developed by the Massachusetts based company Aquabouty Technology. The salmon was developed out of need from the growing human population which outweighs the current salmon population.
The AquAdvantage Salmon have been genetically engineered from Atlantic Chinook to grow at a faster rate on small amounts of food and are made specifically to be sterile females to help prevent reproducing with wild salmon. The idea behind the genetically engineered salmon (GES) to be female is a precaution to prevent escaped salmon from mingling with the wild salmon, had they been sterile males they would cause a disturbance in the spawning grounds by fighting over territory with male wild salmon. Although, Aquabounty has stated there is a slight chance that a small percentage of females may be fertile, but state the chance of them escaping to the wild are very slim.
According to FDA regulations, upon approval, the GES will be required to be grown in a physically contained system to prevent escape and at approved facilities only. When placed at the marketplace the GES will not be required to have any special labels or markings due to the fact that they are genetically the same as wild salmon and pose no threat for human consumption.
The imposition the GES will make on the environment and human diet is still dependent on the future consumption of the salmon. As well as the impact it will make on the economy in the lives of Atlantic Fishermen. Since it is not clear yet how far the GES will be shipped, and we won’t be able to tell by labels or on restaurant menus, it prefer wild salmon to either fish for it yourself or get it from someone you know.
If you would like to comment on the Aquadvantage Salmon, the comment section for the 60 day public debate can be accessed here. Comments will be accepted until February 25, 2013