Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Morning Salmon Station (touch of evil or tranquility bay?)

I always like to walk the dog down Plumtree Road, which runs from Amherst down to Sunderland. It's a pleasant rural walk on a quiet, partially unpaved route bordered by forest.  One is sure to hear a rooster or two on the way or on the road, and every once in a while, one encounters a group of wild turkeys instead of a jogger or bicyclist.  (One of the latter wheeled by yesterday, remarking, "Giant dog!")

To be sure, new houses came in here in recent years, and I regretted the loss of the "rural" setting, but this supposedly unspoiled landscape was of course the product of repeated human intervention (these are secondary forests that took over old farms) and our home is a former farmhouse. At some point, someone perhaps complained when it went up.  There's more than enough NIMBY-ism around here, and humility and restraint are the proper response.

At any rate, I also particularly enjoy the road because it brings me into contact with aspects of the real world that we don't usually see in our little college town.  At one point on the north side of the road is the heavy-equipment training site for the labor union of Operating Engineers, and across from it to the south is the office of the Connecticut River Resource Management Complex, whose responsibilities include ensuring the welfare of migratory fish populations in the Connecticut River Basin.  Both offices perhaps deal with endangered species.

A bit farther west is one of the most interesting and idyllic spots: the Richard Cronin National Salmon Station.

fish trucks at rest over Labor Day weekend
Most of the work takes place inside the buildings beyond secured chain-link fences, but there is also a popular public viewing area, which one reaches after walking past an idyllic little pond.

Subdued—slightly rubbed—yellow salmon stencils on the asphalt path point the way; the worn paint and softened colors match the quiet setting.

Fish Tracks

In the long, shallow, cement tanks, one can observe—sometimes with just a bit of extra effort, depending on the reflection on the water's surface—the salmon.

Here and there, one spots a smaller, strangely dark, even blackish fish, and is taken aback.

Whether for this reason or others, urban (or is it: rural?) legends have sprung up around the site.  According to the most popular one, the salmon were brought here in hopes of breeding a superior fish, but as a result of some secret experiment gone horribly awry, can never safely be released into the natural environment. Either because it would be inhumane to kill them or because the scientists are still attempting to figure out what went wrong, the poor piscine creatures are condemned to live out their lives in the confines of the long concrete holding tanks.

Whether the slicker-coated scarecrow adds a touch of the sinister or the humorous is a question of opinion and individual psychology,

but happening upon small mammalian remains farther down the path, right at the edge of the shallower tanks lush in wild vegetation and devoid of fish (save for the isolated and ghostly white remains of an unfortunate comrade) can, under the right circumstances, introduce a hint of inexplicable menace.

Can legends of monster fish arise for no reason?

The truth, of course, is far more mundane.

We are concerned here with anadromous fish, which "are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean to grow into adults, and then return to fresh water to spawn." The Connecticut River Resource Management Office is tasked with protecting and enhancing the resources and biodiversity of the river's watershed.
Staff and volunteers of the Richard Cronin National Salmon Station have the unique responsibility of capturing and retrieving the Connecticut River’s returning adult Atlantic salmon. Every spring, the wild fish are trucked from the river and its tributaries to the hatchery where they are held safely through summer. In the fall, these fish are mated using techniques that maximize genetic diversity. The eggs are incubated on site and then distributed to other state and federal hatcheries throughout the watershed as part of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Program Restoration Program.
Fortuitously, my recent weekend peregrinations come at a time when salmon and scientific experiments have been much in the news. As NPR explained in a recent very thorough piece, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of reviewing the first request to permit genetically modified animals for human consumption.  A company called AquaBounty Technologies has developed a technique that, by adding a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from another species of fish, allows Atlantic salmon to grow roughly twice as fast—and thus be "harvested" in roughly half the time—as usual. There are really three possible basic concerns here.  It s still hard to see how consumption of the fish would constitute a hazard to human health. We are told that the prevalence of fish allergies argues for caution. Fair enough, but if one is already allergic and aware of that fact, what new risk would this pose? The issue seems to come down to the ambiguity of evidence or inconsistency of test methods and data presentation.  (Part of the problem is that the FDA's standards and procedures have not kept up with the science itself; among other things, the fish is regulated as a drug.).  More serious, one would think, is the possibility of unforeseen environmental harm if fish escape and interbreed with natural stocks or otherwise alter the environment. Aquabounty says the latter cannot happen because the eggs will all be female and sterile, and the fish raised on land rather than in ocean pens. The generally admirable Union for Concerned Scientists rejected that assurance with an expression of general skepticism regarding supposedly redundant safety systems, but its argument was not made more persuasive by the fact that it referenced the BP oil spill (something of a cheap shot as well as irrelevant) rather than directly addressing an entirely different system with both physical and biological elements. This is not to say that concerns are not justified; just that this was a feeble riposte.  Most generally, of course, there is the ethical concern that should attach to any genetic modification of a sentient creature, especially when undertaken in order to provide human food. One would think that should be the starting point for any deliberation.

One tantalizing philosophical question:  To what extent is transformation of an animal through genetic engineering qualitatively different from the manipulation that we have undertaken for centuries (and in some cases, millennia) through selective breeding?  The dog is a case in point. With over 400 recognized breeds, it is, as one PBS science documentary put it, the most varied animal on the planet.  Unfortunately, that deliberate diversity comes at a cruel price, as any dog lover or responsible dog breeder or trainer can tell you.  In the first place, there is the biological dimension, when dogs are doomed to suffer  physical pain as a result of inbreeding and other poor practices. The prevalence of hip dysplasia in German Shepherds is but the most familiar example.  In the second place, there is the social dimension.  "Before the Victorians invited the dog into our home," as that documentary explained, dogs were bred for specialized purposes.  Trying to make domestic pets out of creatures with genetic traits developed for completely different circumstances can be a recipe for disaster.  As one dog expert observed, our longstanding symbiotic relationship with the species is “in crisis” because
“we have completely forgotten” what this animal was intended to do.

Clearly, the issues are complex and multilayered. Sadly, much of the discussion of genetic modifications is ill-informed. 

Large sectors of the European and American public have become downright paranoid about Genetically Modified Organisms [GMO's] in the food supply, which they histrionically denounce as "Frankenfoods." In the meantime, as I've noted, Europeans, while overwhelmingly rejecting traditional theological beliefs, evince a peculiar faith in homeopathy, an unscientific superstition if ever there was one.  (It's not immediately obvious why the idea of a transcendent Creator is intrinsically more preposterous than a chemical theory that ignores the consequences of Avogadro's Number.)

There is a debate to be had, but it needs to be a serious and scientific one.

Organic farmers recently won a landmark legal battle when they secured a ban on the genetically modified sugar beet on the grounds that its prevalence (95 percent of the US crop) deprived them of freedom of choice (not enough conventional seed available, plus the danger that cross-pollination from neighboring fields would contaminate their crop and deprive them of their organic certification). A true evaluation of genetically modified organisms, as a recent UN study on African agriculture likewise showed, needs to take into account the full panoply of factors and consequences:  technological, biological, economic, ecological, and ethical, on both the local and wider scales.

On the less serious side of the newsroom at NPR, the folks at "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," noting the rise of strange animal hybrids and the amusing task of creating the appropriate names—a cross between a zebra and a horse is called a "zorse"—have some fun with the idea.  Thus, for example, by that naming convention, a cross between a beagle and an eagle would be a grotesque (and impossible) creature, but called:  a beagle. The examples get worse.

Fiction is still stranger than truth.  But that may change.

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