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Publication Trifecta Examines Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Fish

Seize The Carp

Seize the Carp! This witticism of philosophers serves as the war cry of fisheries managers throughout the world. According to the Invasive Species Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) is one of the most frequently introduced species on Earth along with rats and starlings. The way carp plow up lakebeds and river bottoms as they feed makes habitats previously occupied by native species unrecognizable.

In Australia, where the so-called "river rabbits" continue to clobber native fish populations, scientists are working in a bulletproof laboratory to genetically engineer fish that can only produce male offspring. In about six years they hope the "Daughterless Carp Gene Technology" approach to managing Australia's out-of-control carp problem will be ready to test in an actual stream.

Could a genetically altered variety of carp help alleviate North America's carp troubles? Perhaps. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified bighead carp, black carp, silver carp (collectively Asian carp) and sea lamprey as potential candidates for control through genetically based technologies.

But should they? Perhaps. This is why Minnesota Sea Grant organized the International Symposium on Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Fish and why the journal Biological Invasions recently cyber-published three articles related to the Symposium.

The first article1, written by Stephanie Showalter Otts, Director of the National Sea Grant Law Center, examines the U.S. regulatory framework governing the use of engineered animals like daughterless carp. Otts reports that, of the agencies overseeing such biotechnology in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is currently responsible for approving the use of genetically engineered fish for biocontrol. Because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the most experience with invasive species management, fish hatcheries, and environmental reviews, Otts recommends that "efforts should be undertaken now, while genetic biocontrol is still in the theoretical stages, to increase the role of the FWS in the permitting process."

Otts co-authored a second2 Biological Invasions article released in February. The take-home message is that genetic biocontrol of pests such as carp and certain insects, even if it becomes technologically possible, will be subjected to such a complex web of governance that it might warrant new international treaties. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the Convention on Biological Diversity currently oversees genetically engineered products at an international level, but the U.S. and Australia have not ratified the treaty at this time. The authors suggest that potential users of the technology become proactive in improving genetic biocontrol policies on national and international levels.

The third article3 crediting the Symposium for its existence was co-authored by three former Minnesota Sea Grant Knauss Fellows and Genya Dana, also a University of Minnesota alumna. In it, the coauthors examine the type of environmental risk assessment that would be necessary before something like a daughterless carp is released into U.S. waters. Pointing to cane toads in Australia and mongoose in Hawaii, they acknowledge that sometimes "attempts to control undesirable species through the introduction of non-native species have backfired in spectacular ways." They suggest that lessons learned from releasing hatchery fish into the wild might inform the success of a release program using genetically engineered fish. Often hatchery fish do not fare as well as those that are completely wild. The authors also argue for a rigorous and participatory environmental risk assessment that involves independent, scientifically defensible, and socially responsive studies.

The federal government has already invested more than $150 million to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp. Recently, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommended spanning the Mississippi at Lock and Dam No. 1 with a $12-19 million barrier of sound, bubbles and flashing lights to keep Asian carp from moving northward out of downtown Minneapolis. On the other side of the planet, people revere the same species of carp as omens of good luck. If daughterless carp and similarly genetically engineered animals are to be used to control invasive fish, the three Biological Invasion articles set the pace toward the well-crafted policies based on science and thoughtful risk assessments that will clearly be necessary.

1R607. Otts, S.S., 2012. U.S. regulatory framework for genetic biocontrol of invasive fish. Biological Invasions, issue not assigned.

2JR609. Gilna, B., Kuzma, J., and Otts S.S., 2013. Governance of genetic biocontrol technologies for invasive fish. Biological Invasions, issue not assigned.

3JR608. Dana, G.V., Cooper, A.M., Pennington, K.M., and Sharpe, L.S., 2013. Methodologies and special considerations for environmental risk analysis of genetically modified aquatic biocontrol organisms. Biological Invasions, issue not assigned.

By Sharon Moen
May 2013

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