Among fishermen, bureaucrats and environmentalists, there are increasing concerns these days about genetic tinkering with fish.
In New Zealand, researchers used genetic engineering to develop a strain of chinook salmon they believed could eventually weigh 550 pounds. The company abandoned the project after a public outcry but held onto the frozen sperm.
On Canada’s Prince Edward Island, genetically engineered Atlantic salmon grow four times faster than normal when injected with a protein.
It seems variations on these fish could be the first genetically altered animals to show up in grocery stores.
No one is quite sure what the biological or environmental consequences might be if genetically altered salmon escaped from fish farms, where they would be raised, and cross-breed or compete with native stocks for food and spawning sites.
“We are very worried,” said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Once you let the genies out of the bottle, you are at the mercy of the genies.”
Most of the attention has focused on fish farms in New England, but there are concerns on the West Coast as well.
“It’s a hot issue,” said Kevin Amos of the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A White House panel is trying to sort out which agency has jurisdiction, with potential claims from the Food and Drug Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Regionally, the Bay Program has policies dealing with the introduction of nonnative species, but not bioengineered species.
Scientists around the world have been manipulating genes in fish for more than a decade.
A Massachusetts company, A/F Protein Inc., said it has orders for 15 million eggs from genetically engineered Atlantic salmon it has been raising on Prince Edward Island.
The fish can reach market size in 18 months, rather than the three years it now takes a typical Atlantic salmon. The company is seeking FDA approval to market the eggs to fish farms.
The breakthrough came when researchers at A/F Protein, an international biotech firm, discovered an antifreeze protein that allows flounder to survive in Arctic waters where salmon can’t. In salmon, it acts as a switch that enables the fish to produce a growth hormone year-round, rather than just during warm months.
Supporters of the concept say transgenic salmon could expand fish-farm operations around the world and relieve the pressure on wild stocks. More than half the salmon sold in the United States are raised on farms.
On the West Coast, Atlantic salmon — the staple of fish farming operations in Washington and British Columbia — may pose the greatest threat to wild salmon.
About 10 million pounds are raised in Washington annually, a $40-million-a-year business. Fish farms in British Columbia raise 80 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually.
Since 1996, almost 600,000 Atlantic salmon have escaped from net pens in Washington waters, and at least 60,000 into Canadian waters.
The escaped fish have been caught by sports fishermen in Puget Sound and found as far north as the Bering Sea. And in the past year, Canadian biologists have found juvenile Atlantic salmon in two streams on Vancouver Island, which indicates spawning activity.
Biologists say the chance of interbreeding between Atlantic and Pacific salmon is remote, though they can’t rule it out entirely.
The real danger, they say, is that the Atlantics will compete with native stocks. There are no signs of such an impact, but it’s early yet, said a recent report by Fish and Wildlife.
Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to grow faster could pose a greater threat.
In the Northwest, an official of the Omega Salmon Group Ltd., which owns Washington state salmon farms, said he knew of no plans to start raising transgenic Atlantic salmon.
“We ... don’t foresee any on this coast,” said Omega controller Keith Bullough. Based in Campbell River, B.C., Omega is a subsidiary of one of the largest salmon-farming companies in the world, Pan Fish ASA of Norway.
But A/F Protein officials say they’ve had private discussions about transgenic Atlantic salmon with virtually every salmon company.