Alaska congressionals lead fight against government approval of genetically engineered salmon

AquaBounty’s super salmon frighten salmon fishers, greens and some of the country’s brownest congressionals-

They were created from a sterile Atlantic salmon female with a Chinook salmon growth hormone gene added. They grow twice a fast as natural salmon, and are designed to be farmed in inland ponds. They are sterile, but many fear what they call “frankenfish” will make their way to the ocean, prove fertile and outcompete natural salmon.

In 2010 the FDA came close to ruling these new salmon are safe to eat. The FDA doesn’t have power to rule on environmental issues.

To intervene in the regulatory process that seemed to moving to approve the salmon, a bill has been introduced in the House and soon the Senate by Alaska’s usually very anti-environmental delegation. It was odd to read Senator Lisa Murkowski say “It kind of gives me the heebie jeebies that we are messing with what Mother Nature who did a pretty good job with in terms of a king salmon.”

Young’s bill is part of the Agriculture appropriations bill. The bills stop the FDA from spending any money to process the application, leaving the application in limbo. A number of other congressionals have joined to back the bills. Murkowski says she will add the amendment when the appropriations bill is taken up in the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps more important than the health and environmental effects of these salmon is that their approval will likely make it easier to approval other modified animals.  On paper some of these sound very good, such as cows resistant to mad cow disease and pigs that produce less manure.

The spread of genetically modified corn in unintended, harmful ways, however, points to caution about the side effects of genetically modified organism. In addition, modified plants that now produce their own pesticides are affecting non-target insects and passing the pesticide trait to certain “weeds.”

The Seattle Times ran a story today on the controversy. “Engineered salmon still a distant reality.” By Mary Clare Jalonick.  Associated Press

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My comment-

I want to add that genetic modification could likely save some endangered species like whitebark pine to make it resistant to bark beetles. This would have an even greater positive? environmental effect to stop the beetles from eating lodgepole and other pines. The problem, however, is almost always in the side effects, especially those not anticipated.

Sept. 13. Today there is a new article on genetic modification of one mammal, the domestic cat, to make it “better.”Cats engineered for disease resistance. Genetically modified felines may be immune to HIV-like virus. By Tina Hesman Saey. Science News.





  1. jdubya Avatar

    The one good thing about these salmon is that to grow them the company has agreed to do it on private land in private ponds with their obligation of treating the sewage from the ponds.

    Thus, in a perfect world, if everyone shifted over to these kind of salmon, the salmon pens in the bays and estuaries of BC, Washington, the east coast and European coast would vanish, leaving the wild salmon the chance to regain their traditional runs that have been KILLED by the Atlantic salmon farming industry.

    What I would prefer to see is salmon with a normal genome grown on private lands instead of virtual hooved locusts in public waters.

  2. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Mixed feelings here. If world population increases, people must eat. When you think of the food we eat, what hasn’t been modified? Look what’s happened to the Great Plains. None of the “stuff” growing out there is without some sort of modification.

  3. Craig Avatar

    With the Salmon and Steelhead returing in greater numbers and the now the Sokeye, have they done anything to modify these fish? Look at Hatchery returns vs Wild returns on IDFG website, kinda strange! I do a lot of Steelhead & Salmon Fishing on the Clearwater, but I do catch and release and there are no physical differences in Wild VS Hatchery EXCEPT more often than not hatchery fish are bigger. I KILLED a 42″ 25 pounder last year! Yes I killed it and ate it to all you harvest, caught, whatever freakes!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I don’t think you shock many, at least I hope you don’t. Salmon die when they return to spawn. No one catches and releases them.

      Steelhead can in principle return and spawn again.

      My late father-in-law was a steelhead outfitter guide (1960s-70s). He had a jet boat and other boats. He fished the Snake River below Hells Canyon and also the Clearwater. According to my wife the freezer was always full of steelhead, caught and left by clients.

      1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        I recently saw some talks on hatchery reform in which two models are models have been developed for hatchery-wild interactions: integrated and separated. Although I’m firmly of the belief that “separated” is the only way to go in this area, I can see why integrated is necessary in systems like the Columbia where hatcheries have been placed right in major wild systems, sometimes to try to maintain production in the face of hydro development, and it is hopeless to try to completely separate wild and hatchery production. In those cases, the effort is to minimize the influence of the hatchery in domesticating the stock. Although as Craig points out, hatchery fish that survive in the ocean are big robust fish, the fact that the hatchery environment is so very different from the selective pressures of the stream tends to quickly make hatchery reared fish less fit to survive and grow in the natural freshwater environment even though they can do well going from hatchery to ocean.

        A tribal biologist gave a very interesting presentation on recent efforts to restore coho salmon in the upper Columbia system, with reintroductions so far in the Yakima, Umatilla and Clearwater Rivers. A daunting obstacle was that the only coho left in the Columbia (save a small distinct population in the Clackamas) are hatchery fish with 50 years of domestication behind them and origins in lower Columbia tribs. NMFS reviewed Lower Columbia coho for a potential ESA listing and concluded they were extinct and that the few spawners left in lower river tributaries were indistinguishable genetically from the pool of hatchery fish. They now spawn in October in tributaries where wild fish spawned in December as late as the 1960s and early 1970s. This extinction happened to stocks that didn’t even have to negotiate dams and reservoirs, but were subjected to extreme fishery exploitation (inriver gillnetting on top of 80% or so ocean exploitation rates, resulting in 90% or caught in the 1970s) and habitat loss while having their genetic fitness to survive in wild streams undermined by hatchery domestication and introgression. No upper Columbia fish were available for the transplant because the last coho swam into the Snake River in 1986. So all they had was that scorched-earth hatchery gene pool from the lower river — sort of like using wolf-hybrids to re-colonize Yellowstone. I asked if they had considered getting broodstock from (probably) similarly adapted wild fish in the upper Fraser (Thompson) system and he said they had to go through hell and court battles just to get approval to reintroduce any coho from within the system, mainly because of the vehement opposition from sport steelheaders (maybe a few lurking here?) who didn’t want to see any coho because of run timing similar to steelhead and concern it would lead to tribal fisheries. There would be legal and potentially political and conservation issues to bringing in broodstock from Canada (not the least being that Thompson River coho is the weak stock currently restricting ocean coho fishing in much of southern B.C.). I still think for the longer term, trying to introduce some wild genes from a similar freshwater environment would be good. However, success in the reintroductions so far has been surprisingly good and natural production is occurring.

        1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan

          Ideally, I would prefer salmon recovery in the Columbia and tributaries such as the Snake and Clearwater all be “wild” fish, but it is more important to have significant runs than such purity

          We don’t need the perfect to be the enemy of the good, and I am pleased with the recovery of salmon taking place in that drainage.

          Salmon runs consisting of fish that might not fit the rivers exactly is better than no runs at all — better for commercial fishing at sea, better for wildlife that eat salmon, better for those who fish for salmon “recreationally” than struggling along with wild runs alone.

      2. Craig Avatar

        That was a Steelhead Ralph.

        1. Craig Avatar

          Ralph you didn’t answer my question? Are these Hatchery fish differnt genetically from wild runs?

          1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
            Ralph Maughan


            I am not an expert on this. I don’t know. Hatchery fish are subject to a lot of things different than wild fish. I would not be surprised if they are slightly different genetically, but they are also the product of different environmental conditions from the start. Some of these affect their vigor and others don’t.

          2. SEAK Mossback Avatar
            SEAK Mossback

            Craig –
            I guess the simple answer is yes, they are different. However, the important difference is in their fitness to survive in the wild freshwater environment. There have been a number of studies that indicate that domestication in rearing species like steelhead and coho happens very quickly. One clear indication that the effect is “domestication” rather than just genetic effects of poor hatchery broodstock selection is when offspring of wild parents also survive more poorly from the hatchery than those of hatchery parents, not just the converse. As Ralph indicated, the hatchery rearing environment with high densities in raceways being fed pellet food is extremely different than what is experienced in a natural stream by a territorial rearing species like steelhead or coho. There have been attempts to design hatcheries more like natural rearing habitat but it is of course very expensive and space intensive to achieve similar production. Hatchery managers often have difficulty seeing how selection in the hatchery could occur because they aren’t seeing enough mortality between emergent fry and the smolts they release to believe they are having any selective effect, however, the actual selection occurs after release when the fish face very high mortality in the river and ocean with those that did best in the hatchery rearing environment surviving best.

            So there is nothing inherently “wrong” or patently inferior with hatchery fish, at least anadromous species that have survived the river-ocean journey. They just quickly adapt to a different freshwater environment which presents a challenge to maintaining fitness in stressed nearby wildstocks that interbreed with them.

            There is a school of thought that even an endangered struggling wild stock should be sheltered from hatchery introgression rather than attempt hatchery supplementation to rescue it. That thinking prevailed in policy for Snake River fall Chinooks in the 1990s when they were listed under the ESA and an attempt was made to kill hatchery strays that entered the spawning area. In Alaska, we came under major NMFS inquisition and harvest cuts totaling 10,000s of chinooks over an estimated 3 or so Snake River fall chinooks that our fisheries were estimated to catch — which was of course miniscule compared with hydro-related losses (Forget wolves if you want to talk about fear and loathing of the ESA! ).The tribes, also being harvesters, seem definitely on the same page in preferring integrated hatchery management in the Columbia, and I recently saw a presentation showing there is far more natural spawning as well as hatchery production of Snake River Falls now.

            So I definitely appreciate the arguments for trying to maintain wild stocks separate in the wild. However, in practice when a stock gets down to that level in a system like the Columbia with hatchery production somewhere in the system, the freshwater habitat which is normally limiting is not being fully utilized, so the selective pressures of competing for food and space are not there, giving any hatchery spawners that enter the population from whatever source (even strays from more distant hatcheries) the likelihood of producing offspring that survive and influence the gene pool, reducing fitness, and of course at some point the population loses beneficial diversity by becoming too small. With integrated hatchery management, an attempt is being made to give the native broodstock as much exposure to the natural environment and selective forces as possible while maintaining a larger naturally spawning population that keeps the competitive, selective processes for fitness in the natural environment going (but of course not without some influence by the hatchery environment). Hopefully, it is sustainable. If the hatchery was going to go away in the future without an improvement in natural habitat and survival conditions, I could agree that keeping wild fish entirely separate would probably be the best long-term option for fitness and survival of the stock. The population does become somewhat dependent on continuation of the hatchery, but that is the best option in this situation and I think most of us would agree that having more fish in the system is also better for all people who fish or like to see salmon, as well as the ecosystem as a whole.

            Here’s the most recent reference I know of that gets at survival in the wild of fish with difference proportions of hatchery parentage, and much of the data is from steelhead in the Columbia system.


  4. jdubya Avatar

    Uhhh…hatchery fish mingling with wild are a very different story than the disease ridden fish pens that the the fish farmers like to use. The abuse of public waters by these industries is very akin to the destruction of public dry lands by overgrazing. I am surprised that the people who rail against killing the land under excessive sheep and cow herds don’t have the same perspective at the abuse of public waters.

    If you want to know more, follow Morton’s blog on the Cohen hearings in Canada….

  5. Craig Avatar

    SEAK Mossback, thank you that was very informative and I really appreciate it! Do you have any info on why the counts of Sokeye at Lower Granite compared to the counts in Stanley, Redfish vary so much? Do they spawn at other lakes? Or is it a mortality issue?

    1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      Craig —
      There is some mortality between Lower Granite and Redfish Lake. During the unexpectedly large run in 2000, 31 sockeye were radio tagged at Lower Granite of which the fate of 29 was determined. Of those only 12 were successful in passing Redfish Lake Creek weir or Sawtooth Hatchery weir. Check out Table 1 in this report:

      Table 2 shows were the ones that failed to make it dropped out. Inriver adult mortality has been a big factor in Fraser River sockeye escapement in recent years and mortality appears related to higher river temperatures during fish passage. I think that is suspected to be an important factor in the Columbia system too.

      As far as sockeye spawning and rearing in other Sawtooth lakes, I know it once occurred in at least a couple of other lakes from having read an old federal fisheries report from 1892 but haven’t heard anything about presence in other than Redfish lake in recent years.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan