Frankenfish: Monster or misunderstood?

Photo credit: Jian Bautista

There is an idea out there that says that when we seek to conserve or restore something in nature, we are actually only trying to restore it to some previous state that we can remember. For example, say we have been exploiting a forest for lumber for nearly 100 years. 100 years reaches well beyond our memory, and we do not have any idea what the forest was once like, instead we might only remember it back 20 or 30 years. It is decided that we are going to stop logging in that forest and attempt to rehabilitate it to it’s former glory. That former glory is dictated by our memory of the forest that may extend back 30 years ago. As a result, we restore the forest, but only back to what is was in the 1980s, the 70 years prior to that are lost to human memory and we do not fully restore the forest to what it was 100 years before, right at the point we began logging it for lumber. This idea is called shifting baseline.

Shifting baseline applies to everything, including the fishing industry. Say boats have been fishing out of Kenai for the past 60 years, and in our effort to keep the ocean and rivers stocked with salmon, we decide to open a fish hatchery that is meant to help replenish the fish that are taken out for commercial and personal use every year. Chances are we might be doing just that, however, are we putting enough fish in to account for the total number of salmon 60 years ago?

Ideas like genetically modified fish aim to make sure that we do not over-fish the populations in our rivers and oceans. The idea is simple: create a genetically superior fish that is able to be raised in a hatchery or fish farm in half the time (or faster) of wild salmon. This takes stress off the fish populations that populate rivers and the ocean and allow them to reclaim some of their previous strength. While we may not avoid a shifted baseline all together, we give the salmon a better chance to reclaim some of their former glory.

These genetically modified fish have been labeled ‘frankenfish’ by those that oppose it, and I am one to argue that this might be a fitting name. After all in the famous Mary Shelley book, the monster that Dr. Frankenstein created in many ways is larger, smarter and physically more impressive than any Human 1.0 (referencing the book and not any movie adaptation in which the monster seems dumber than normal humans). The frankenfish grow faster and are ready to be shipped to the market in a fraction of the time. In many ways, frankenfish are superior to Salmon 1.0.

Alaskan lawmakers love to run under a banner of opposing frankenfish, and the opposition to GMO salmon is on both sides of the isle. This should serve as an idea where most Alaskan’s stand on the issue.

A few of the arguments against the implement of GMO salmon is that the ‘frankensteined’ population of salmon could get loose into the general population and out-compete the Salmon 1.0 population over resources as well as out breed them. The first of these arguments is valued and very legitimate. The GMO salmon may pose a danger to stressing the salmon’s food sources. The best defense against this issue would be to keep the frankenfish in fish farms as securely as possible.

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The idea that they might out breed the natural salmon, however, is not a very good argument. Frankenfish are bred to be a complete population of sterile female salmon. In other words, they will be unable to have offspring at all.

What about Jurassic Park? In that movie, the entire population was suppose to be said to be female and unable to reproduce, yet some how nature found a way and in the end, the dinosaurs were able to reproduce. Jurassic Park is a great movie, however, evolution does not happen on such a quick scale. Hundreds of thousands of years usually have to pass before a population in a single species can evolve to change something about their population. As anyone that has taken high school level biology can attest, we need not worry about the frankenfish population finding a magical way to start breeding.

Now for a few arguments in favor of the frankenfish, apart from the fact that they would take stress off the normal salmon population, which is a huge reason itself. The population of the world is by no means getting smaller. By 2050, the world’s population is projected to be 9.7 billion people, double what we are at now. Many scientist believe that while we could viably feed the population of today, we do not. Millions of people today are currently living with starvation. What happens when we have twice as many mouths to feed? We will need to have some food sources for everyone. GMO salmon could be one of the helpful solutions that we could employ to make sure that we are feeding everyone.

The GMO fish also help keep the grocery bill lower, which few people would complain about. This does pose a concern over jobs, however I would argue that wild caught salmon could simply label themselves as “organic” which we all know is a hot selling point these days.

Those reason may not be enough for some people, and I understand that. The truth is, the possibility that a GMO salmon population could find its way into the normal fish population and out compete them for food is a scary concern, and one I share with those opposed to frankenfish. An alternative to the frankenfish is on the table. A GMO feeder fish that is meant to help the salmon population grow and contain more omegas and all the other good stuff we want from our salmon. The feeder fish would also be intended to be contained to farms and would too be sterile. If they were loosed into the natural population, they could not breed, and would provide nutrition for the wild salmon.

While this solution is not foolproof, it is something that can help maintain a valid population and avoid a shifting baseline for our salmon. It will provide food for a growing population, and it will keep the Alaskan lawmakers happy as they can keep standing on a platform that opposes frankenfish.