Updated at 8:10 a.m. on February 17.
When Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, talks about salmon, he sounds an awful lot like Bubba from Forrest Gump, who spends the movie listing his favorite ways to eat shrimp.
“I’ll eat salmon any way it comes,” Begich says. “I eat it straight out of a jar when it comes smoked, I’ll eat it out of a pack, I’ll eat it in a spread, or I’ll eat it grilled. I’ve had everything from cooked to lox, you name it.”
The one way he won’t ever eat it is genetically modified. And if he has his way, no one else would either. Begich recently reintroduced legislation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to stop the Food and Drug Administration from approving production of these scientifically enhanced fish.
He wrote the original version of the bill last year after AquaBounty Technologies in Waltham, Mass., created a genetically modified salmon that grows at twice the speed of its natural brethren. And while that bill didn’t make it out of Congress, Begich says he believes it has already made a difference.
“FDA approval of genetically modified fish was supposed to be fast-tracked, so the very fact that it hasn’t happened yet shows they are taking note,” he said. But just in case the FDA does allow the sale of GM fish, Begich has included in the bill a requirement that these fish be labeled.
And while this bill is unlikely to be a top priority for most people in Washington, it’s a classic example of legislation that senators write to appease their constituents back home.
“The finest restaurants in the world wait for our salmon,” Begich said. “To have some garbage salmon... would be devastating to the fishing communities.... To create an inferior product will degrade the industry, because people might not be able to tell the difference by the packaging, and once they taste it they may decide not to buy salmon anymore.”
As if his disdain wasn’t already palpable, Begich has taken to calling GM fish “Frankenfish.”
AquaBounty CEO Ronald Stotish, however, says this characterization of his product is ungrounded.
“It’s absurd,” Stotish said. “It’s clearly just a way to scare people. People like to evoke images of Jurassic Park or Franken-whatever, but the fact of the matter is that all we are doing is using modern technology to increase food production and better meet the demands of the 21st century.”
When Stotish says this is fear-mongering, he has a point. AquaBounty is adding just one gene from another fish to the salmon eggs that allow the fish to grow quicker. While it’s cutting-edge, it doesn’t quite live up to the Frankenfish term, which conjures up evil science gone awry. It certainly doesn’t live up to the movie by the same name, a 2004 schlock horror flick about monstrous GM fish that gobble up unsuspecting scientists.
These salmon (the real ones, not the fish from the movie) are all female and sterile, so they cannot mate with other fish, which may be moot anyway as AquaBounty plans to keep them in holding pens, and not release them into the wild.
Stotish also pointed out that the Center for Veterinary Medicine says there is no evidence that the fish will have a negative environmental impact. And as for taste? Stotish started sounding like Begich when he said, “We had a blind taste test with it, we barbequed it, we poached it, we baked it, we smoked it, and no one could tell it was different.”
Regardless of the science, one thing is clear: Begich has skin in the game when it comes to salmon.
Salmon’s stock as an issue of national importance jumped last month when President Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address when talking about food regulation. “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," he said. “And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked." Afterward, Begich sent Obama a can of Alaskan smoked salmon.
But, while relatively new to the national scene, salmon has an unparalleled importance to Alaska (according to John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country, there are six Salmon Rivers and 13 Salmon Creeks in Alaska).
The Anchorage Daily News reported this year that 96 percent of all wild-caught salmon in the country comes from Alaska. It’s such a vital export (seafood is the No. 1 export in the state and is valued at $2 billion) that it has led to conflicts with Canada—most notably an incident in 1997 where a Canadian flotilla of fishermen blocked the passage of an Alaskan ferry for three days. To quell this salmon war, the United States and Canada revised a comprehensive agreement that sets quotas for the two countries known as the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
Begich’s D.C. office is a testament to Alaska’s greatest export. Behind his desk a yellow bumper sticker reads “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Farmed Salmon” (he’s got another one on his car), and a picture of his wife holding a 63-pound king salmon sits atop his mantelpiece. He usually has a couple of cans of salmon by his desk, but he recently finished the last of his stash.
So for Begich, the possibility of genetically engineered fish poses a number of problems, and hits close to home. He says it’s the top issue that constituents mention on his Facebook page. In addition to the fact that the health consequences aren’t fully known, Begich worries that these fish will prove to be an inferior product that could pose a threat to fisheries in his state.
“Ten years ago, I might have said our fisheries weren’t sustainable,” he said. “But we’ve done a lot since then. We are now a model that people look to worldwide. We shouldn’t be giving up on what’s right and what’s natural.”