Friday, March 18, 2011

Transgenic salmon and humility

MARCH 17, 2011, 8:30 PM
Frankenfish Phobia
Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
At a time when the shell of the earth has cracked and the ocean heaved a mortal wave upon a shore of vulnerable nuclear plants, a small miracle is playing out in the biggest river of the American West. Spring Chinook salmon, the alpinists of the maritime world, are following biological imperative and climbing their way up the Columbia to spawn and die.
They are returning from a life in the distant Pacific, swimming home to a grave in gravel, some going almost 1,000 river miles inland. Chinook are the largest salmon, easily the most tasty, and perhaps the most imperiled.
Given the demand for salmon, it is no surprise that a Frankenfish has emerged — a lab-created hybrid that could soon become the first genetically engineered animal approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption. The company behind these manufactured fish promises that they will not affect ones from an ancient and wild gene pool.
Here we go again. It is human to think we can trick nature, or do it one better. It is human to think a tsunami would never knock out a nuclear plant, a hurricane would never bury a city and a deepwater oil drill would never poison a huge body of water. In the gods of technology we trust.
Until they fail. And then, we feel helpless and small and wonder what they — or we — were thinking.

The fate of wild salmon and a panic over power plants that no longer answer to human commands would not seem to be interlinked. But they are, in the belief that the parts of the world that have been fouled, or found lacking, can be engineered to our standards — without consequence. You see this attitude in the denial caucus of Congress, perhaps now a majority of Republicans in power, who say, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that climate change is a hoax.
The newfangled fish comes from AquaBounty Technologies, a company in New England, where many species of the water world are now extinct. They have patented an “AquAdvantage Salmon,” a sterile Atlantic female with a Chinook gene that can “grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon,” says the company.
Consumer groups, and a bipartisan cluster of Congress that has not forsaken reason, are fighting fast-track Food and Drug Administration approval. They are also insisting that if the Frankenfish comes to market, the new salmon would have to be labeledtransgenic — over the company’s objections.
Wild salmon require so much work: they need clean water, a bountiful ocean and restraint to ensure that they aren’t fished out of existence. Vigilance, and a small amount of sacrifice — what a drag.
The alternative, some feel, is to create something under human control. What AquaBounty would do is to take the Chinook gene and splice it into a farm-raised Atlantic. A third fish, an ocean pout, which looks like an eel on a bad fin day, would provide the genetic code that allows AquAdvantage Salmon to grow so fast. Voila: fast fish from the factory, without the hassle of habitat preservation.
I’m not reflexively afraid of living better through chemistry. Genetically modified corn and soybeans have been around for some time. If we can grow food and fiber with less demand on water and nutrients, that’s often worth pursuing.
But the Frankenfish is a much bigger step, and not just because it opens the door to federal approval of all kinds of freaks from the farm. Splice a breast-heavy chicken with a pellet-loving pig and you’re into some seriously modified “other white meat.”
With wild salmon, many people wonder what all the fuss is about. In the Northwest, salmon is our symbol, even if we’ve so mismanaged their spawning grounds with dams and overfishing. Where once there were perhaps 20 million salmon returning to the Columbia, that number now is barely a million in some years.
Alaska has done much better. They have the world’s largest wild salmon runs because they’ve protected habitats, kept water quality fairly good and regulated fishermen.
These new salmon, AquaBounty says in its pleadings before the government, will not harm the ones handed down by the ages. There is “virtually no possibility of escape and interaction with the wild population,” company officials say.
Why do I not feel reassured? The last quarter century has bred skepticism into me, beginning with a personal experience in 1986. We were in Italy, my wife pregnant with our first child, when the Chernobyl nuclear plant blew. The Soviets lied, and covered up the accident.
But what soon became clear — that a runaway reactor had spewed more than 400 times the amount of radioactivity into the environment than that released by the atomic bomb over Hiroshima — made us tremble. For days, along with the rest of Europe, we watched the pattern of a huge radioactive plume, as officials warned that pregnant women were at particularly high risk.
Luckily, the radioactive cloud never came our way. But given the choice between the hard work of trying to respect the laws of nature, and the engineered solution, I’ll take the seasonal miracle of wild salmon — and try to learn something about humility.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lubchenco Is The New Cheerleader For The Status Quo

By Demian Ebert 

In a recent commentary in The Oregonian, Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, stated that salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin is now being guided by science and pointed to increased survival of juvenile salmon and improved returns of adult salmon as validation of recovery efforts. But attributing improvements in salmon and steelhead returns to the recovery program alone is misleading. 

Survival of juvenile salmon in the Columbia River has increased because of improved passage conditions, due largely to increased spill at the dams -- ironically, an action that was imposed on federal agencies by court order. Improved ocean conditions have resulted in increased adult returns for some populations of salmon and steelhead. Unfortunately, most of the returning fish are from hatcheries. Wild fish populations remain far below recovery levels. 

Although Lubchenco asserted that science supports the NOAA plan, a comprehensive review by the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society concluded the plan relied more on monitoring than on specific actions -- monitoring that's adequate for tracking the status of salmon, but not adequate for ensuring their protection and recovery. 

Let's face it: Science alone will not guide salmon recovery; ultimately it will be a societal decision. But the public should not be misled into believing that the best available science has been fully implemented, as NOAA contends. Many human actions have contributed to the decline of the Columbia runs of salmon and steelhead, including habitat degradation, overharvest and poor hatchery programs. Dams, reservoirs and operation of the hydropower system have been major contributors to the decline -- especially for Snake River populations -- and are also contributing to the decline of other native species, notably the Pacific lamprey and white sturgeon. Yet much of the NOAA recovery approach is a tacit acceptance of the status quo when it comes to the hydropower system. 

In 2000, the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society -- representing hundreds of fishery professionals -- passed a resolution that "The four lower Snake River dams are a significant threat to the continued existence of remaining Snake River salmon and steelhead stocks; and if society wishes to restore these salmonids to sustainable, fishable levels, a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams, and this action must happen soon." We reaffirmed this resolution in 2009. The Idaho Chapter and Western Division of the American Fisheries Society, collectively representing thousands of aquatic scientists, have also passed similar resolutions. 

Furthermore, results from a scientific assessment -- a five-year effort of regional scientists convened by NOAA -- indicate that the action with greatest certainty of recovering Snake River salmon and steelhead is breaching the lower four Snake River dams. 

Yet NOAA now considers even the study of breaching the Snake River dams to be essentially an action of last resort, triggered only when fish runs fall to perilously low numbers. Should society decide to implement dam breaching, many years of study and planning would be required. Comprising several generations of fish, this could severely limit the value of the action if important salmon and steelhead populations go extinct before the first shovel of dirt were moved. 

Lacking the information necessary to assess the technical, physical and biological effects of breaching the Snake River dams, NOAA cannot meet its stated objective of using the "best available science" to develop recovery actions. 

The Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society encourages a proactive, comprehensive study of dam breaching, with independent and open scientific review, so that this recovery action could be thoroughly considered and implemented in a timely manner. Hundreds of dams in the United States have been removed, with a growing record of immediate and positive responses by rivers and native fish. If society decides recovery of these imperiled fish is truly important, we should consider this science-supported recovery action for the Snake River and its fish. 

Demian Ebert is president of the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. 

Published in The Oregonian March 11,2011