Researchers seek approval for gene-altered fish for human consumption

DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer
Friday, March 8, 2002
©2002 Associated Press

(03-08) 01:34 PST SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) --

In the latest battle over genetically modified food, federal regulators must decide if fish given super-growth genes -- Frankenfish, as critics call it -- is safe for the dinner table.

    A Food and Drug Administration ruling on the modified Atlantic salmon is expected to
    influence the fate of dozens of other animals that could be genetically engineered, such as
    cows, chickens and pigs.

    The genetic tinkering is aimed at faster stocking of supermarket meat counters and dairy
    cases. The engineered salmon, raised by Waltham, Mass.-based Aqua Bounty Farms Inc.,
    grow to market size twice as fast as their unmodified cousins.

    Supporters say these salmon would sell for less in supermarkets, while easing pressure on
    wild or hatchery-raised fish.

    But opponents fear the engineered fish will hasten the demise of natural species if allowed to
    crossbreed. They also argue that human health risks have not been thoroughly studied.

    While work on transplanting fish genes has been under way for about 15 years, the FDA
    application and the efforts of at least two states to make their own decisions about modified
    fish have brought the debate to a head.

    The FDA has given no indication of when it may rule, though Aqua Bounty said it expects a
    decision by 2004. The company has been seeking approval since 1996.

    In the meantime, one state has already permitted farming of genetically modified fish in
    ponds or lakes that don't connect to other waterways. Maryland passed the law last year,
    although gene-altered fish in the United States are currently raised only in tanks.

    California, meanwhile, is considering outlawing modified fish. A bill pending in the state
    Senate would ban the import, possession or release of the fish anywhere in the state.
    Another pending bill would simply require supermarkets to label genetically modified fish.

    Researchers are tinkering with other breeds. English scientists are working on tilapia, while
    Canadian researchers are concentrating on Chinook salmon. Transgenic tilapia are being
    considered for approval by Cuba, and genetically altered carp by China.

    New Zealand researchers already developed salmon they said might reach 550 pounds, but
    halted the project because of public objections.

    Some researchers say fast-growing fish could become a new staple in the developing world
    -- providing an ample and inexpensive food supply.

    But opponents say the escape of genetically engineered fish could drive wild populations to
    extinction, citing a Purdue University study showing that the "superfish" could have a
    competitive advantage over native fish for food, mates and habitat.

    The Purdue study tracked tiny Japanese fish called medaka that were altered with a growth
    gene from Atlantic salmon. Environmental research so far shows the opposite may be true
    for salmon themselves, or for catfish, researchers said.

    Gene-altered Atlantic salmon swim slower, reproduce poorly, use more oxygen and take
    more risks for food than their wild cousins, said Aqua Bounty vice president Joseph
    McGonigle and Auburn University fisheries researcher Rex Dunham.

    Genetically engineered catfish have about a 10 percent lower survival rate if they're forced
    to compete with native fish, said Dunham.

    "They're simply not adapted to life in the wild," McGonigle said.

    But environmentalists argue the impact of genetically modified species can be hard to predict
    and difficult to control -- in Mexico, for example, just a few years of unlabeled U.S. imports
    of modified corn wiped out natural varieties of the 4,000-year-old crop.

    Already, more than half the salmon sold in the United States is farm-raised. Fish farming is a
    $40-million-a-year business in Washington state, where farmers raise about 10 million
    pounds annually. That's dwarfed by British Columbia, where farmers annually produce 80
    million pounds of Atlantic salmon.

    Naturally grown Atlantic salmon have escaped there from the ocean pens where they are
    raised. The fish are an ocean away from their normal breeding grounds, and biologists say
    interbreeding with Pacific salmon is unlikely.

    However, Canadian biologists have found young Atlantic salmon in two streams on
    Vancouver Island, indicating that the farm-raised fish have been able to reproduce.

    McGonigle said Aqua Bounty raises the modified fish in tanks and could not escape into
    local waterways. Regardless, researchers are attempting to head off the environmental
    debate by promising to use only sterilized fish that couldn't reproduce if they escape.