- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

A Massachusetts biotechnology company is seeking to develop the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption: a farmed North Atlantic salmon that grows four to six times faster than those in the wild.
Aqua Bounty Farms of Waltham, Mass., has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration for approval of a so-called transgenic salmon, or one that has been genetically altered. In this case, every cell of the fish, which would be raised in ocean pens, contains genes from both the Chinook salmon and the ocean pout fish.
This alteration makes for a re-engineered growth hormone gene, which make the hybrid salmon grow much faster and go to market sooner, cutting growers' costs. The company says the altered salmon would not grow larger than the typical salmon in the wild.
Aqua Bounty hopes its new gene-spliced fish will appeal to those involved in the growing field of aquaculture, or fish farming.
But the Center for Food Safety, a consumer activist group, is leading a coalition of 113 organizations and individuals who want the FDA to refuse approval of "GE fish" until its effects on human health and the environment are known. The coalition includes environmentalists, commercial fishermen, the Canadian-based Atlantic Salmon Federation and even the Humane Society of the United States.
Officials of Aqua Bounty Farms say the opponents are just grabbing headlines, as the FDA has already pledged a thorough review of health and environmental issues related to the new fish.
But Natasha Benjamin, fisheries program officer for the Institute for Fisheries Resources, the research arm of the Pacific Federation of Fisheries, said, "We're very concerned about both the environmental impact and the human health risks of a genetically engineered fish."
Noting that about 15 percent of farmed fish typically escape, Ms. Benjamin said the GE salmon, which she says could be larger and more aggressive, would compete for food and habitat with native salmon.
"That could be devastating" for the latter, which already is a threatened population, she said.
Computer simulations suggest GE fish could outcompete natural fish for food and for mates. However, a 1999 Purdue University study showed that the resulting offspring of GE and non-GE fish would be 30 percent less likely to survive than those without a genetically engineered parent.
Insight magazine reported that there is concern that GE fish "could eventually bring certain species to extinction in 40 generations if they were to mate with non-GE fish."
Elliot Entis, president of Aqua Bounty, dismisses such concerns. He says reproduction will be impossible because all female GE salmon in the holding pens will be sterile.
But Susan Scott, spokeswoman for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, based in New Brunswick, Canada, was not assured.
"There is no such thing as 100 percent protection when it comes to sterility. There will always be some fertile females that slip through," she said in a telephone interview.


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