To Restore Salmon, Follow the Creator’s Plan, Not Frankenfish
By Caleen Sisk-Franco
One day coyote noticed fox was smoothing sticks and fashioning them into children who would help him find food. Coyote was filled with envy and soon started to build his own family.
Impatient and greedy, coyote made his children with rugged, knobby sticks and built them much larger than him, thinking they would hunt more food this way.
When he finished, however, his roughly-hewn children disobeyed his orders, turned against him and beat him up.
My tribe, the Winnemem Wintu, is a traditional salmon people that come from Mount Shasta in California, and we learned long ago from coyote it’s dangerous to mimic the Creator. It’s a lesson yet to be learned by AquaBounty, the Massachusetts company behind the genetically engineered salmon likely to be approved by the FDA this month.
The GE salmon, which many have nicknamed Frankenfish, have been spliced with a poutfish gene and a growth hormone so it’ll grow twice as fast. While the FDA is assessing their safety based on AquaBounty’s own flawed studies, anyone with common sense can see Frankenfish poses a great threat to wild salmon.
If they escape into the ocean, they’ll compete with wild salmon for food, contaminate the gene pool and possibly cause extinctions. This comes at a time when Pacific salmon runs have recorded historically low numbers, and when many, including my tribe, fear they may soon be lost forever.
AquaBounty is like coyote building with sticks, and the GE salmon are as shoddily constructed as coyote’s children.
Thus, we find it ironic that the government is fast-tracking the GE salmon yet skeptical about our own unorthodox but far safer plan to return Chinook salmon to our river, the McCloud.
This March we traveled to New Zealand where, under the auspices of local Maori tribes, we held a ceremony for the Rakaia River salmon, genetic descendents of the sacred fish that once spawned in the McCloud. During World War II, the Shasta Dam was erected, and it flooded our villages on the McCloud and permanently blocked our salmon from returning home.
Thankfully they were not gone forever. In the 1870s, a McCloud hatchery sent salmon eggs to New Zealand where they eventually spawned a stable fishery.
Because it’s impossible to know which current Sacramento salmon were once McCloud salmon, we’ve received approval from the Maori and New Zealand Fish and Game officials to import the Rakaia salmon back home.
We want to build an open-air hatchery to rear the young fry and re-introduce them to McCloud waters. To get the salmon around the dam, we’ve proposed using a natural creek that runs from the Sacramento and parallel to the dam’s reservoir. If the creek was connected to the reservoir, our salmon would be dropped close to the McCloud’s mouth. Once they get a whiff of their spawning waters, the salmon will find their way home.
In New Zealand, Maori and biologists alike support this plan, but stateside agencies say they’re worried about the genetics of the salmon, and that they might pose a danger to other California salmon.
There are no other salmon in New Zealand, and the Rakaia run is healthy and disease-free. The fish have undergone some genetic changes in the past 150 years, but if they adapted from the McCloud to the Rakaia, they surely can re-adapt back.
Before the dam, the Winnemem spent our entire existence observing the salmon and passing this knowledge down through our stories. "Shouldn’t thousands of years of direct observation be more respected than AquaBounty’s farcical studies?"
I wish the government would remember why we’reso close to a world without salmon. They built dams that destroyed the spawning grounds, dug mines that polluted the rivers and then acted surprised when the salmon disappeared.
They’ve since been trying to replace the salmon they’ve destroyed with coyote-like machinations – trapping the salmon and hauling them by truck around the dams, building factory-like hatcheries and now the unholy conception of Frankenfish.
All this effort and money spent, and the salmon are still imperiled. So if they’re going to allow AquaBounty to raise the Frankenfish, they should allow us to try our plan that poses no danger, that splices no genes and that aims to restore the world to the way the Creator made it, the way it was meant to be and the only way we’ll ever bring the salmon (and ourselves) back from the brink of extinction.
Unfortunately, the government is so busy inspecting fox; they’re allowing coyote to run rampant.
Caleen Sisk-Franco is the chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu. The Winnemem are a small tribe that lives outside Redding and is currently engaged in a salmon restoration project of the McCloud River.