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Thursday, July 1, 2010


It was another tough week in the news.  A recent New York Times article revealed that the Food and Drug Administration was likely to approve a genetically engineered salmon.
This new and improved salmon would combine the growth hormones of a Chinook with a genetic on/off switch of the Ocean Pout in a farmed Atlantic salmon that will grow twice as fast in half the time to market size.  
Genetic engineering changes the DNA in an organism. DNA is like a blueprint for life. Genes are the building blocks of DNA.  Inserting foreign genes into the DNA can give the organism more desirable qualities, or not. 
As with most progress there is a danger of unintended consequences. Any negative side effects to genetic engineering would be irreversible once the mutated organism was loose in the environment. We could find ourselves allergic to our poisonous food or even create a new super-bacteria that was resistant to our antibiotics.  Either way genetic engineering could threaten the very survival of man as a species.
Humans have always been risk takers. Modern or Cro-Magnon man only appeared on the global scene about 40,000 years ago.
Their increasing population soon led to widespread environmental devastation.  While climate change played a role, the latest theories suggest that early man’s discovery of the North American Continent led to the extinction of the mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths about 11,000 years ago.
These Pleistocene mega-fauna are among an estimated 135 species of mammals that went extinct shortly after being discovered by the roving bands of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.  Those were the good old days, the most stable period in human history.
It was too good to last.
Around 10,000 years ago humans began planting grain. There was a surplus. Men gathered in walled cities to make beer.  Early man needed a decent steak with his beer. 
This lead to the domestication of animals and even more environmental destruction as man sought pasture for his herds.  Overgrazing by pastoralists created deserts by eroding the topsoil 
The rediscovery of the New World by the Europeans repeated the environmental devastation of earlier millennium with much more drastic results. The American bison was hunted into endangered species status, replaced by cattle and amber waves of grain.
The ocean became man’s last frontier.  The Pacific salmon, a fish once so plentiful they were called, “The poor man’s tuna,” was fished into economic extinction throughout much of their range in less than 100 years.  This increased both the demand and price for salmon.  
It was inevitable man would start farming the ocean.
The first Atlantic salmon farms began in Norway in the 1960s. They were popular until the pollution from fish waste, disease, parasites and the inevitable escape of thousands of salmon sent the fish farmers to fresh sea pastures in the New World. 
Once at home in the Pacific Northwest, the fish continued to pollute the sea bed with a chemical stew of fish waste, dead fish and growth promoting antibiotics.  The European Union banned growth promoting antibiotics in 1999 after it was determined that these substances were harmful to human health.
Growth promoting bacteria are still legal to use in controlling the spread of diseases in American and Canadian fish farms. These diseases can spread to the wild fish with the fish farm effluent.  Sea lice, a parasite that thrives in fish farms  can overwhelm and kill juvenile wild salmon.
Once in the New World the Atlantic salmon continued to escape from their pens by the millions. The ecological effect of these fish invading the spawning water of native wild salmon has yet to be determined.
Now the multinational fish farmers want to start raising genetically engineered Atlantic salmon in North America because they won’t allow that sort of thing in Europe.  When these fish escape, and there is no doubt they will, they could endanger our native runs of Pacific Salmon and Steelhead.
Our management strategies have already made the Pacific salmon rare, threatened and endangered.  Getting rid of any escaped Frankenfish should be no problem. We’ll let the experts at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, to study them to death.
Those pesky genetically engineered salmon should disappear in no time. 

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