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November 26, 2013

Let's Give Thanks for Wild Salmon, Not Frankenfish

Upper Skagit Tribe fisheries technician Larry Peterson shows tribal youth how to prepare Chinook salmon for cooking. (Photo credit: Kari Neumeyer, NWIFC)

By Elisabeth Keating, Seattle-based writer and former Communications Chair of the Sierra Club's Washington State Chapter.

My family didn't eat any fish at Thanksgiving. But in fact, fish have been an intrinsic component of our nation's Thanksgiving feast from the start. After a Native American from the Patuxet tribe named Squanto taught the pilgrims to fish and harvest corn, the pilgrims teamed up with him in 1621 to plan a celebratory meal that probably included Atlantic salmon.

We've come a long way since 1621.

The FDA is now on the cusp of approving the first genetically modified animal: a genetically modified salmon that is part eel and includes antifreeze in its DNA so it can grow all year long. I wonder how John Smith would have reacted at that first Thanksgiving if Squanto had dumped some fish on the table and said, "We didn't actually catch this fish. We made it out of an eel, and threw in some antifreeze. Enjoy!"

In all seriousness:

Given that salmon is a keystone species that is intrinsic to Northwest tribal culture, identity and economic survival, it's hard to understand why the FDA hasn't considered any economic or cultural input from the tribes in its evaluation.

As I learned this fall from Anne Mosness, a wild salmon advocate who served on the steering committee of the failed Initiative 522 movement to label genetically modified food in Washington State, the U.S. FDA hasn't run rigorous testing on the fish from either the standpoint of its safety for human consumption or its potential effect on the wild salmon population if it escapes open pens and enters the environment.

It's not just that the AquaBounty salmon is partially eel, partially made with antifreeze. The AquaBounty salmon  is bred to grow far more quickly than wild salmon. The risks of AquaBounty fish are well documented in this Center for Food Safety report: Genetically Engineered Salmon: The Next Generation of Industrial Aquaculture.

And while AquaBounty says it's raising the fish in Panama to prevent the danger of their escaping into the oceans, many of AquaBounty's permits are missing. And eventually, the salmon will be grown in open pens in the Pacific Northwest, given the strong emphasis on aquaculture and farmed fish from NOAA.

Things are moving quickly: Canada just approved genetically modified salmon eggs.

The Northwest tribes have already weighed in in a letter to the FDA, Brian Cladoosby, Chairman of the Swinomish Tribal Community, said, "The tribe is also concerned that genetically engineered salmon pose a grave threat to the environment and to the health of the general population. We strongly believe that it would be an error for the FDA to accept the unsupported "guarantee" that all genetically engineered fish can be contained and not adversely impact people and the environment. History has shown that fish raised in aquaculture facilities can -- and will -- escape. It is also likely that genetically engineered fish would eventually be raised in open ocean net pens because nearly all commercial salmon production occurs in such pens. Farmed salmon routinely escape."

Tribal culture as well as fishing rights are put at risk by the AquaBounty salmon.

As Chief Weninock of the Yakama tribe put it, back in 1915:

"My strength is from the fish; my blood is from the fish, from the roots and berries. The fish and game are the essence of my life. I was not brought from a foreign country and did not come here. I was put here by the Creator."

The approval process for genetically modified salmon has moved forward in secret without much attention from the national press. When you think about what we're at risk of losing, that seems extremely reckless.

At risk:

• A rich tribal culture organized around the celebration of wild salmon, steeped in tradition.

• All the money and effort poured dam removal and salmon habitat restoration on the Elwha River.

• Massive efforts on the part of the Sierra Club and our partners to make ecosystem-based management a key tenet of the revitalized Columbia River treaty.

• The entre wild salmon fishing industry: An economic bulwark of Washington State.

• Healthy food, full of omega vitamins. (Genetically modified salmon does not have the health benefits of wild salmon.)

• Essential food for Pacific Northwest's rich and abundant wildlife including spirit bears, grizzlies, orcas, and wolves.


• A big profit for AquaBounty.

• An untested fish that won't be labeled in stores or distinguishable from real wild salmon.

• The first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption: that has been tested as a drug, not an animal.

This doesn't make sense. The risks are too high.

Eating salmon is about more than consuming any fish that's put in front of you and not knowing where it comes from. As the Northwest tribes know, it's about celebrating the cycle of life and carefully harvesting  our bountiful planet.

Take action

The FDA could approve the AquaBounty salmon any day now. But there's still time to act.

Sign a petition to tell the FDA: GMO salmon is too risky.

Learn more

A Tribal Perspective on Genetically Engineered Salmon

KCBS News & Public Affairs Director, Sonya Green speaks with Rob Purser, Fisheries Director of the Suquamish Tribe, Valerie Segrest, Community Nutritionist and registered member of the Muckleshoot Tribe, and Anne Mosness, long time fisherwoman and President of the Women's Maritime Association, about their take on the possible approval of genetically engineered salmon for commercial sale.


Lummi-reefnet-fishingIn September 2013, the Lummi Nation held the first reef net fishery in generations. The net is suspended between two canoes. Tribal fishermen watch for the salmon to swim close to the surface, then lift the net. (Photo credit: Kari Neumeyer)

For more information, read "Lummi Nation holds reef net fishery at Cherry Point."

Return-of-the-salmonMembers of Port Gamble S'Klallam royalty with the baskets of fish before being ceremoniously placed into the water. (Photo credit: Tiffany Royal)

Return-of-the-Salmon-ceremoBaskets containing salmon carcasses are blessed during the Port Gamble S'Klallam Return of the Salmon ceremony. (Photo credit: Tiffany Royal, NWIFC)



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