California has passed a law forbidding the cultivation of genetically modified (transgenic) salmon within the state for the next five years. The law, AB 504, was passed by both houses of the legislature, and signed into law by Gov. Brown on September 19. It was initiated by Assemblymember Wesley Chesbro.
The new law basically applies to fish hatcheries, since existing law already forbids such cultivation in ocean waters that are controlled by the state. Existing law also forbids cultivation of non-native fish, and any salmonid species other than king salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout.
Research facilities are allowed to continue studying transgenic fish, as long as they are contained within a closed system that prevents the escape of such fish into the wild. However, the purpose of the research cannot be the commercial cultivation of such fish.
The state of Washington has already passed a similar law.
Genetically modified Atlantic salmon, which are a different genus from Pacific salmon, have been developed by a Massachusetts-based company called AquAdvantage. All salmon naturally contain a growth hormone, but in nature, the growth hormone stops functioning during the winter months.
By adding a gene from the ocean pout, an unrelated fish that can survive in arctic waters, AquAdvantage produced a salmon in which the growth hormone never turns off. As a result, the modified salmon grow to maturity faster, become larger than natives, and could out-compete them.
Ecologists have noted studies in which farmed salmon have escaped from their pens and been found in large numbers far from home. Some scientists have expressed fears that if genetically modified salmon got into the environment, native salmon populations could become extinct in 40 generations.
This fear has been dismissed by biotech scientists, who say that the modified fish are all genetically sterile, and will thus be unable to breed if they did escape into the environment. Biologist William Muir, a Purdue University professor, told the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee that the transgene would probably be “purged by natural selection.” The FDA is still evaluating the safety of these organisms.
AB 504 was sponsored and supported by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, CalTrout, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Ocean Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the Northcoast Environmental Center, and a number of Native American tribes.