May 14, 2000, New York Times © 2000

Coping With Supersalmon

Just as we were getting used to genetically engineered corn and potatoes, along comes a strain of salmon that grows to market size in only 18 months, twice as fast as normal salmon. These hormonally hyperactive creatures -- called Frankenfish by their detractors -- may in fact turn out to be the first genetically modified animal to make it onto American dinner plates. But before they do, regulators here and in Canada have two obligations -- to see whether these fish pose a threat to the environment and, if they do, to ensure that they are properly regulated.

According to a recent story in The Times, Aqua Bounty Farms, a subsidiary of A/F Protein, a biotechnology company, has applied to the Food and Drug Administration for approval to market the fish in the United States.

The company, which has several thousand prototype fish swimming in tanks on an island near New Brunswick, Canada, says it has orders for 15 million eggs from aquaculture companies that want to raise these fish. All it needs is approval from the F.D.A.

The F.D.A. claims regulatory authority because it regards as a drug the genetically engineered growth hormone that transforms ordinary Atlantic salmon into supersalmon. The agency promises a rigorous food safety review as well as a review of the superfish's potential impact on the environment.

Unfortunately, the F.D.A. is ill equipped to deal with environmental questions. Its scientists are not trained in that field and its interests do not lie in that direction. A more obvious choice would be the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the Commerce Department, or the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service, both of which have scientists who know more about marine life.

There are two main fears. One is that genetically engineered fish, should they escape into the wild, will mate with wild salmon, diluting the wild salmon's genetic makeup and diminishing its ability to survive in nature. The other is that the supersalmon will invade the wild salmon's habitat, competing for food and space. At least one computer model suggests that the intermingling of wild fish and genetically engineered salmon could wipe out entire populations of wild salmon.

The company says its superfish are so pampered that even if they escaped, they would not survive long enough to do any harm. This does not reassure those who worry about the decline of wild Atlantic salmon. Ordinary farm-raised salmon were also thought to be too domesticated to cause trouble in the wild. But they have escaped in large numbers, competing for habitat and spawning in the same streams as wild salmon. And while the extent of the biological pollution caused by farm-bred salmon is a matter of hot debate, some scientists believe that interbreeding is at least partly responsible for the decline of wild Atlantic salmon stocks.

A special panel convened by the White House last year to coordinate federal policy on genetically engineered foods is now looking into the salmon issue -- specifically, whether the Fish and Wildlife Service can claim jurisdiction under statutes covering "injurious" wildlife and aquatic nuisances. Another possible approach would be to invoke the Endangered Species Act.

At the prodding of two conservation groups, Trout Unlimited and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the Interior Department has proposed classifying salmon populations in eight rivers in Maine as endangered. If these populations are so designated after the required period of public comment, the federal government would be empowered to impose strict controls on any activity seen to threaten the species, including commercial fishing, logging and fish farming of all kinds.

The Atlantic salmon is an obvious candidate for protection. Its numbers in North America, including Canada, have dwindled from 1.5 million 30 years ago to 350,000 today. Most of these are in Canada. The population returning to the eight rivers in Maine can be measured in the hundreds. The last thing these beleaguered creatures need is competition from a bunch of brutish newcomers.