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California Bans Genetically Engineered Salmon

Food

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last month banning the commercial production of genetically modified, or transgenic, salmon in California waters over concerns about the impact they could have on native salmon.

Genetically modified "frankenfish" could threaten northern California's fishing industry.

AB 504 was written by Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, from Arcata, north of San Francisco on the Humboldt Bay where marine life abounds, including coho and chinook salmon, and sponsored by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. Salmon fishing is a major industry in northern California, and it's already stressed by drought and competing demands for water. Native species could be further stressed if so-called "frankenfish," bred to grow at a much faster rate than normal, escaped into state waters.

“I thank Governor Brown for understanding the importance of protecting California wild salmon and steelhead from the threat of transgenic modification,” said Chesbro. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing an application by a company that seeks to produce a farmed salmon in the United States that has been genetically altered to grow faster than native salmon. If these ‘frankenfish’ were to escape into our waters, they could destroy our native salmonid populations through interbreeding, competition for food and the introduction of parasites and disease. The only way to ensure this never happens is to ban commercial hatchery production, cultivation or stocking of transgenic salmonids in California.”

AB 504 extends a prohibition on spawning, incubation or cultivation of transgenic salmon in the Pacific Ocean to all waters of the state. It bans hatchery production and research for commercial production and puts safeguards on such research activities in general, requiring that they be conducted in a "closed system" without access to the state's waters.

AB 504 was sponsored by Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations and supported by California Aquaculture Association, CalTrout, Golden Gate Salmon Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northcoast Environmental Center, Ocean Conservancy, Sierra Club California and the Southern California Trawlers Association. The area's native tribes, which depend heavily on salmon fishing, also supported the ban.

The Center for Food Safety said it "cautiously welcomed" the new legislation. But it said a "dangerous loophole" must be closed.

"California has taken has taken an important step to protect its native salmon and trout stocks," said the group's west coast director Rebecca Spector. "Genetically engineered salmon pose a serious risk to our waterways and our native fish populations. This bill expands a 2003 law to include all waterways within the state of California. Unfortunately it opens a loophole for research that could lead to dangerous fish escapes. 

"The expanded law unfortunately allows researchers to grow genetically engineered salmon and trout in tanks that could be located right next to waterways containing the wild variety of the species being engineered," warned Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the center. "Similar breeding tanks have been wiped out by storms allowing fish to escape. The research exemption sounds reasonable, but many of the scientists working on GE salmon and trout already have contracts with the companies that want to commercialize GE fish. The provision basically allows for corporations to continue their efforts to commercialize GE fish, undermining the intent of the ban."

According the the Center for Food Safety, the Food and Drug Administration received nearly two million comments opposing the approval of genetically modified salmon, and several grocery chains, including Kroger, Whole Foods, Safeway, Target and Trader Joe’s, committed not to sell genetically modified seafood if it is allowed on the market.

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"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

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"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."