Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Feb 20 2013 04:43 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Something fishy about genetically engineered salmon

By The Bakersfield Californian

What is the deal with salmon? They seem to be the hardest-working fish in the stream. Or in the sea. Actually, a display about ocean travelers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium surprised me by featuring salmon, because I forget that salmon live most of their lives in the ocean. I think of them as the aquatic heroes who struggle upstream to get back to the exact spot in the river where they began life, in order to spawn, or at least to die trying.

A salmon doesn't get to laze around under the sea, hanging out like Ringo Starr's octopus in its garden. A salmon is the fish equivalent of an over-achiever, the kid in your graduating class with the 4.5 average who plays the violin and runs track and feeds the homeless and gets a scholarship to med school. Why does God make such people? Why did God make the salmon such a complicated creature? These are the questions we can hope to have answered when we die. In the meantime, we can consider the life of the salmon, and the lessons therein.

Salmon are anadromous fish, meaning that they live in the sea but reproduce in fresh water. Newly-hatched salmon, called alevins, stay in the nest that their mother has dug with her tail in the gravel of the stream bed. They are born with a food sac attached to them, but when the salmon fry use up that food, they leave the nest in search of insects to eat. At this point they have developed a camouflage, and are called parr. They become the familiar salmon-silver color when they mature into smolt. After growing a bit more, the smolt swim downstream to the estuary, where the river meets the ocean. There, they undergo smoltification, in which their bodies physiologically transform to allow them to live in salt water. Depending on the type of salmon, they may live up to seven years in the sea, and migrate thousands of miles, until it is time to reproduce. As they return to the magical place of their birth, they do not eat. They change color, and weaken, and usually die after spawning. The female will lay thousands of eggs in the nest, which are then fertilized by the male. For every 8,000 salmon eggs, it is typical that 4,500 alevins survive, from which only 650 fry survive, from which 200 parr and then 50 smolt survive, from which only two spawning adults make it back to produce those thousands of eggs. The adult salmon's life is an amazing and inspiring saga of determination.

So it seems especially undignified that the salmon should be the first "frankenfish".

The sad fact for salmon is that people, and other large predators, like to eat them. Salmon in the wild are decreasing to dangerously low levels, due in part to overfishing, as well as to dams and poor habitat. Most salmon are now harvested from farms. They are hatched in captivity, fed until fat, and then turned into grill-ready steaks for sale at Costco. The salmon on your plate, in other words, is not the kind of salmon whose noble and arduous journey we have just admired. In the very near future, the salmon on your plate may not even be purely salmon. Thanks to impending FDA approval, the salmon consumed by future fish-eaters will be genetically modified in such a way that it will be regulated not as food, but as an animal drug. In splicing eel and other fish genes into the salmon, and in a fit of Newspeak, a company called AquaBounty has created the AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon. It would be the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption.

I try not to be anti-technology, but I am a true Luddite when it comes to messing around with the seeds we plant, the produce we harvest, the food we process, and the way we nourish ourselves and our children. While I am no food purist, in that I don't make my own yogurt or grow my own organic vegetables, I am absolutely alarmed by our capacity to mess with genetic engineering first, and consider the long-term repercussions later. I also object to the secrecy with which the food-altering apparatus operates: the FDA's announcement was made quietly four days before Christmas, and the genetically modified salmon will require no label identifying it as such. I don't trust the motives of industry, because the bottom line of profit rarely has the good health of consumers at heart. It also seems that, by circumventing the requirement for a full Environmental Impact Statement, the FDA is failing to perform its regulatory mission.

The transgenic frankenfish will be bred in controlled tanks, but the scientific jury is still out on the potential ecological consequences, such as what happens if a genetically modified fish escapes and mates with a salmon in the wild, or the possible health ramifications, such as food allergies, of its production and consumption. In the case of this animal drug, salmon-eaters might want to consider just saying no. In an existential light, we humans might want to say no to the hubris of thinking we can create a better salmon than God already did.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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