It took 20 years for the Atlantic salmon to navigate its way upstream against the current of federal regulation, but as the journey appeared to draw to a close, the salmon’s final destination has been thwarted – again – by regulation from Congress. 

After two decades in regulatory limbo, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an application to sell the first genetically modified (GM) animal, the AquaAdvantage Salmon, in the U.S., but a small group of special interests including the Alaskan salmon fishing industry succeeded in lobbying Congress to impose unnecessary regulatory barriers to reduce competition in the salmon market at a cost to consumers and the environment.

Earmarks for Alaskan fisheries

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You may remember the $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by Congress in December, but you may not know it included a sneaky provision inserted by Senator Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiSpeaker’s office: No energy bill this year Passing US-Canada preclearance would improve security and economy Overnight Energy: Dakota pipeline standoff heats up MORE (R-Alaska), who represents the $6 billion Alaskan fishing industry, to block the FDA from allowing AquaAdvantage Salmon to be sold in the U.S. until it publishes labeling regulations specific to GM fish, which could take years to issue. Murkowski went as far as using her position as chair of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources committee to block the appointment of an FDA commissioner “due to lack of cooperation.” The FDA had already decided “based on sound science and a comprehensive review” that labeling was unnecessary because AquaAdvantage Salmon was “as safe to eat and as nutritious” as other salmon with “no biologically relevant differences.” 

Missed opportunity to reduce costs and environmental impacts

The AquaAdvantage Salmon uses a gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon that controls the fish’s growth hormone so it grows continually throughout the year, while traditional salmon only grow in spring and summer. This reduces the amount of time required for fish to reach market size and saves money for salmon farmers and consumers.

This is a game changer for salmon producers who now see land-based aquaculture as a competitive substitute for traditional sea-cage farming methods. This difference in process can reduce harmful effects on the environment including the risk of diseases or parasites transferring between farmed and wild fish populations and the carbon footprint associated with transporting salmon (land-based sites can be closer to the markets they serve).

Concerns about GM fish interacting with wild populations are mitigated by land-based production’s risk management procedures such as locating facilities at significant distances from lakes and streams and breeding fish to be sterile so they can’t reproduce even if they come into contact with other salmon populations. Additionally, these fish require 25 percent less feed as they grow, which means fewer species of wild fish will be converted into salmon feed.

Bootleggers and Baptists

Economists use the term “Bootleggers and Baptists” to describe how powerful interest groups throw their weight behind legislation for their narrow political or economic gain under the guise of protecting the public—often at a cost to society as a whole. During the 20th century, religious groups opposed the sale of alcohol but so did bootleggers who stood to reap increased profits by selling it illegally. Politicians claimed they were merely pursuing the public interest by maintaining the ban, all the while enjoying the economic support of the bootleggers.

Murkowski’s pursuit of the ban on imports of AquaAdvantage Salmon allows her to assert her motivation as concern for the “health of both consumers and Alaska’s fisheries” while simultaneously seeking economic rents for her constituents. The unnecessary delay of GM salmon is likely to provide years of protection from competition for the Alaskan salmon industry, straining wild salmon populations and denying consumer access to less costly, equally nutritious alternatives.

Nobody wins with less choice

Consumer demand for salmon makes aquaculture a necessary alternative to wild salmon fishing—it’s not going away. Innovations in biotechnology can allow us to find better ways to farm salmon with benefits for consumers and sustainability. 

Temporary government protection of Alaskan fisheries comes at the expense of the environment, dwindling wild salmon populations and affordable food options for all Americans. Regulation should produce benefits for society as a whole instead of creating barriers that only benefit special interest groups.

Pérez is a policy analyst at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.