Alaska’s Senators Taking Actions Against Frankenfish

Murkowski, Begich File Legislation Attacking from Both Sides

WASHINGTON, DC – In their latest efforts to stop Genetically Engineered (GE) fish from being a reality, U.S. Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski today filed two separate pieces of legislation – Begich by introducing the Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the United States (PEGASUS) Act to ban the interstate commerce of GE fish, Murkowski by filing an amendment to the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill that would prohibit funds from being used by the FDA to approve the application for GE fish, or ‘Frankenfish.’  Each Senator co-sponsored the other’s efforts.

“There is just too much at risk here. The public has expressed serious concerns about the introduction of Frankenfish into the nation’s food supply including potential threats to the environment and public health, and economic impacts on producers of sustainable wild salmon,” said Begich, chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard.  “There are concerns about the transparency of the FDA’s review process and whether the consumer’s ‘right to know’ is being ignored.  Some, frankly, just aren’t comfortable with the idea the government thinks it can improve on nature by genetically altering Alaska wild salmon.”

“The Frankenfish issue still has far more questions than answers, starting with the FDA’s process for approving an animal product intended for human consumption is considered by some to be insufficient.  The tests have come under attack from scientific groups, including the FDA’s own Veterinary Medical Advisory Committee,” said Murkowski, Chair of the Oceans Caucus and member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “More alarming is the fact that data analyzed by the FDA looked only at salmon grown at a Canada facility when these Frankenfish will be produced at a Panama facility.  In addition, the FDA has not taken into account the full economic impacts that the approval of engineered fish will have – especially for a state with robust fisheries like Alaska.”

Begich’s bill would make it unlawful to “ship, transport, offer for sale, sell, or purchase genetically altered salmon or other marine fish, or a product containing genetically altered salmon or other marine fish, in interstate or foreign commerce.” 

The legislation would also make it illegal have custody, control, or possession of, with the intent to ship, transport, offer for sale, sell, or purchase genetically altered salmon or other marine fish, or a product containing genetically altered salmon or other marine fish, in interstate or foreign commerce.  Violations would be enforced and subject to penalties under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

In introducing her amendment to the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill Murkowski reiterated concerns previously raised, including the potential release of these aggressive, fast-growing salmon into the environment.

“Frankenfish could pose serious risks to wild populations of many fish.  While these modified fish are supposed to be sterile,” added Murkowski, “5 percent of the fish could remain fertile, and escaped stock could breed with wild stocks, introducing hazardous mutations to a currently healthy and hygienic wild stock.  What’s more, an estimated 100,000-farmed fish escape their pens every year.  Escaped genetically engineered fish could out-compete wild stocks, turn on other species, and wreak havoc on the ecosystem.

“The damaging impacts of other invasive species released into the environment are well known,” Begich said.  “While the manufacturer maintains its fish will be raised in closed rearing facilities, opportunities for escape exist through water circulation, handling accidents or unauthorized releases.  Proponents publicly discussed opportunities for marketing GE salmon live during a Congressional staff briefing this year.  While proponents maintain the fish will not be able to interbreed with wild stocks, it is reported a small fraction will not be sterile.  Unintended genetic contamination from GE crops is well documented; it’s not reasonable to think it can’t happen here.”

Alaskans have additional concerns about introduction of GE salmon.  As one of the world’s largest producers of wild salmon, they fear potential harm to global fish markets by the introduction of this engineered species.  Salmon markets and prices were severely impacted with the growth of widespread salmon farming in the 1990s and Alaska fishermen struggled to recover by branding their salmon as wild.  Large scale production of GE salmon poses a new threat by creating product confusion among buyers and possible rejection in the marketplace, particularly if the fish are not labeled.

Public opposition to the approval of GE fish for human consumption is strong.  Recently, 93 fishing, conservation, consumer and other groups signed a letter in opposition to the AquaBounty proposal.  Polling data suggests even broader rejection of GE salmon among potential consumers.  Opponents are mindful that approval of GE salmon is likely just the first in many GE animals in line for consideration by the FDA for human consumption.

The Senators said Congress indicated its opposition with the passage by voice vote in the United States House of Representatives of the Young-Woolsey amendment which would bar FDA from using funds for the approval of GE salmon. They support similar language in the United States Senate but it is now clear additional action is needed which is why they today introduced the PEGASUS Act.