UC Santa Cruz professor receives $150,000 fellowship to help save wild salmon

Dennis T. Kelso, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has received a $150,000 fellowship that will support his efforts to save wild salmon. Kelso today (Monday, September 29) was named a fellow of the Pew Marine Conservation Program, one of only five international recipients recognized each year for their work advancing solutions to the oceans' most pressing problems.

Kelso will be developing policies to protect the wild salmon of the northwest United States from changes in the structure of the salmon industry and proposed new technologies in salmon aquaculture. He will use the funds to address the problems associated with the production of farm-raised salmon and the use of genetically engineered fish in commercial salmon aquaculture.

The Pew Marine Conservation Fellowships are the world's most prestigious awards supporting applied ocean conservation science and outreach. Each fellow receives $150,000 over three years to carry out innovative, interdisciplinary projects addressing challenges facing marine environments around the world.

Alaska is by far the largest producer of salmon in North America, but the rapid and continuing expansion of salmon farming has glutted the world's markets. Prices have fallen so low that the futures of many small-scale fishers and fishing-dependent communities are at risk. Major legislative and regulatory changes under consideration could have unintended socioeconomic and ecological effects, warns Kelso. "Alaska has sustainably managed salmon and their habitats for half a century, but as the tie between human communities and salmon ecosystems is weakened by loss of economic value, the incentives for protecting those ecosystems diminish," said Kelso."

"We are at a crucial moment of change and risk for conservation of salmon, their ecosystems, and the human communities that depend upon them," said Kelso. "Battles for habitat protection, however skillfully waged, may be quickly overtaken by developments that include unintended effects from restructuring commercial salmon fisheries and from the proposed introduction of genetically engineered fish into salmon farming."

Genetic manipulations are easier and often cheaper to achieve in fish than in domestic livestock such as chickens, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is weighing the idea of allowing the commercial aquaculture industry to use Atlantic salmon that have been genetically engineered for faster growth. Some genetically engineered fish have dramatically faster growth rates and achieve market size in roughly half the usual time.

But scientists have identified a number of serious ecological and economic risks and policy concerns associated with genetically engineered salmon that may escape from aquaculture facilities into marine and other aquatic environments, including changes in the ecological fitness of wild fish because of competition and other interactions with escaped fish. Those changes may include gene flow from genetically engineered fish to wild populations. Economic risks include further impacts on the beleaguered wild salmon industry and disruptions of the existing commercial salmon aquaculture industry's structure. Studies have shown that hundreds of thousands of conventionally bred farmed salmon already have escaped from fish cages damaged by storms or predators and because of other operating accidents. Escaped genetically modified fish that breed with wild salmon would create an uncontrolled experiment of nature with unknowable outcomes, warned Kelso.

With his Pew Fellowship, Kelso will develop policy alternatives that focus on two neglected topics. First, despite the United States government's current emphasis on the rights of states, most discussions about managing ecological risks from the proposed use of genetically engineered fish in salmon aquaculture still focus on federal regulation. In fact, the U.S. government now emphasizes deregulation rather than regulatory control of ecological risks. Kelso will look at whether well-constructed and carefully managed state, provincial, and regional regulatory systems can be successful, regardless of whether federal actions are taken.

Second, most proposals to restructure Alaska's salmon fisheries are dominated by considerations of production costs and marketing factors; Kelso will investigate socioeconomic and conservation issues.

A lawyer, social scientist, teacher, and public servant, Kelso brings a broad range of experience to the subject. As Alaska's commissioner of environmental conservation, Kelso directed the state's response when the Exxon Valdez went aground in 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. He stood up against the reluctant Exxon Corporation to ensure that the spill was cleaned up and to enforce environmental laws. He also represented the state before news media and numerous congressional committees.

As deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from 1983 until 1986, Kelso worked to preserve salmon habitats, conserve the caribou herd that calves on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and protect migratory waterfowl populations. He also directed the Division of Subsistence from 1980 to 1983, supervising field research on traditional uses of wild, renewable resources in Alaska's rural communities. After obtaining a law degree from Harvard University, Kelso worked early in his career as an assistant public defender in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Iñupiat villages of Alaska's Arctic slope. Kelso earned his Ph.D. in energy and resources from UC Berkeley.

At UCSC, Kelso pursues environmental issues related to genetically engineered organisms, marine resource protection and use, coastal land and water policies, and changes in natural resource industries. He is coeditor of the new book, Engineering Trouble: Biotechnology and Its Discontents, published by the University of California Press, Berkeley (2003) and is working on a manuscript about salmon. Kelso is also coholder of the Pepper-Giberson Chair in Environmental Studies at UCSC.

The four other 2003 Pew Marine Conservation Fellows are Rainer Froese of Germany; Steven Gaines of the United States; Kristina Gjerde of Poland; and Ana Parma of Argentina. More information about all the Pew Fellows is available on the web at www.pewmarine.org.

The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation seeks to foster greater public understanding of the relationship between life in the sea and life on land. Nominations are made through an international network of environmental experts. Review and selection is conducted by a 12-member international advisory committee based on the applied conservation merit of the proposal, the individual's professional achievement, and the potential impact of the project. The program is an initiative of the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, among the largest philanthropies in the United States, supporting nonprofit activities in the environment, culture, education, health and human services, public policy, and religion.


Note to journalists: You may contact Dennis Kelso at (831) 459-3685 or dkelso@ucsc.edu.