Designer fish flounder over legal hurdles

Peering down at 15,000 salmon circling in a fish-farm pen in Cobscook Bay, Maine, it's hard to imagine that just 12 years ago all the fish caught here swam in the open sea.

The advent of aquaculture - enclosure, breeding, inoculation, and computerized feeding - has quickly made a science of what was once a rustic way of life. And now scientists promise to accelerate the pace of change with the next big innovation: designer fish.

By 2002, A/F Protein Inc., an international biotech firm based in Waltham, Mass., plans to market genetically engineered salmon that reach market size in half the normal 28 months. The patented AquAdvantage fish use rearranged bits of flounder and salmon genes to stimulate an over-production of hormones, speeding early salmon growth by 400 percent. It would be the first genetically engineered animal available for human consumption.

Researchers claim genetically altered seafood will begin a "blue revolution," feeding a burgeoning global population and boosting profits. But opponents argue artificial "Frankenfish" might be unhealthy to eat and produce enough effluent in their sea pens to pollute the local marine environment.

Some also worry that hurricanes or hungry seals could rip the nets allowing thousands of genetically altered organisms to escape. If they came in contact with wild salmon they might breed and taint the gene pool with artificial DNA sequences, or out-compete real salmon for food and drive them to extinction.

While regulators around the world currently prohibit open-water tests of so-called "transgenic" fish, no governments have passed laws explicitly banning their commercial use. Negotiations are ongoing in Chile and Canada, and the technology awaits approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Despite the controversy, transgenic fish are a temptation for Jeff Stevens, general manager of DE Salmon Company, an $8 million traditional fish farm in Lubec, Maine, that is barely breaking even.

"The [fish-farming] business has been so marginal that you have to use whatever resources you can to increase profits," says Mr. Stevens, who maintains eight 70-foot-wide sea pens here. "It's just common sense that if you can speed up the process of growing fish, you're going to take that step."

Does it make economic sense?

Many fish farmers, though, see genetic engineering as an unnecessary improvement fraught with uncertainty. Salmon is already in such worldwide overabundance that the wholesale price has sunk to $2 a pound from $6 a decade ago. Last year in London, members of the International Salmon Growers Association voted overwhelmingly to shun transgenics.

"If someone was insane enough to try it, it would change the structure of the whole industry," says Joe McGonigle, president of the Maine Aquaculture Association. "It's a solution without a problem."

Indeed, the science behind the super-salmon was discovered by accident 20 years ago, when a researcher at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada, accidentally froze a tank of fish. The flounder survived by producing "anti-freeze" proteins.

Using modern gene-splicing techniques, researchers removed the cold-sensitive part of the flounder DNA and turned it into a control gene for growth. They did this by attaching it to a salmon gene that makes growth hormones, and inserting that sequence back into salmon eggs. The result is a normal-looking (and tasting) salmon that makes growth hormones in its liver, when the water gets cold and dark. So instead of slowing its metabolism in the winter, the AquAdvantage salmon keeps growing.

A/F Protein has used the same technique to design accelerated-growth flounder, trout, arctic char, and freshwater tilapia. Just under 100,000 of these creatures now swim in high-security, flood-proof tanks in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and are being bred with normal fish to stabilize the genetic lines for potential sale to fish farms.

"When you're eating our transgenic fish, you're not eating anything new, it's just a slight juggling of the genes," says A/F Protein president Elliot Entis. "If you put out a safe product, which is good for the consumer, good for the producer, and good for the environment, then people will buy it." If transgenic fish are approved in the US, Canada, or Chile, the first eggs will be available at the end of 2000, and the first fish could arrive in supermarkets by 2002.

Regulatory hurdles

So far, though, the regulatory hurdles have been significant. The Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates US coastal waterways, fears unforeseen environmental problems, and prohibits transgenic tests. So do Canada, Britain, and the treaty-based North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization.

Mr. Entis argues his AquAdvantage product line is pro-environment, because it will accelerate the conversion to aquaculture, relieving pressure on wild stocks. AquAdvantage fish grow faster so they require less food than normal fish-farm salmon. This would make the industry more sustainable, he says. But environmentalists question that premise.

"Fish farms in general are bad," says Mark Whiteis-Helm, a spokesman for the London-based environmental group Friends of the Earth, noting that Canada last year instituted a two-year moratorium on new fish farms. "They eliminate the whole process of species development, where the fittest survive."

But in January the tide may have turned against aquaculture's opponents. The Washington State Pollution Control Board ruled that escaped Atlantic salmon from fish farms pose no threat to the habitat or survival of Pacific salmon. Environmentalists are challenging the decision. They say escaped domesticated fish can swim upriver near spawning grounds, frustrating efforts to restock wild salmon every spring. One development that might help A/F Protein allay fears of genetic "pollution" is mass fish sterilization. Salmon farmers would buy a sterilized fish or egg, which grows normally, but cannot reproduce. Such techniques, however, are not 100 percent effective, and some fish might remain fertile. That's why critics say transgenic fish might be appropriate only for land-based tanks, where escape is impossible. So far those systems have not proved cost-effective.

Meanwhile Stevens continues to breed larger, stronger fish the traditional way. Genetic engineering for him is just a way to speed that process. Given enough time, hatcheries can match most advances pioneered in a laboratory, he says. "Selective breeding goes back a long way. Genetic engineering isn't that different from what we're already doing."

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