Annie Zak

Genetically-engineered salmon cleared for US sales by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration last week cleared the way for genetically engineered salmon to be sold in the U.S. The agency on March 8 deactivated a 2016 import alert on such salmon, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. That ban restricted the sale of genetically engineered salmon in the U.S. until the agency issued labeling guidelines. The change has alarmed some in Alaska about what genetically engineered salmon on the market might mean for Alaska’s salmon industry, which harvests wild fish. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, pushed back in December 2015 against the market introduction of genetically engineered salmon and called for stricter labeling requirements on such products. The import ban was put in place the following month. “I’m extremely disappointed in the FDA’s shortsighted decision,” Murkowski said in a statement Friday. “It is wrong-headed and a bad idea, simple as that. I am not going to back down and will continue my fight to ensure that any salmon product that is genetically engineered be clearly labeled.” At the end of last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put out rules for genetically engineered foods, Reuters reported, and “consumer groups criticized the USDA for saying companies need to use the term ‘bioengineered’ rather than the more commonly used terms ‘genetically engineered’ or ‘GMO.’” The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute supports Murkowski’s position, said Jeremy Woodrow, the institute’s communications director. The group’s research shows that consumers “want to know where their seafood comes from,” he said. Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan also opposed the change. The FDA’s decision “to allow genetically modified ‘salmon’ for sale to everyday consumers without clear, discernible labeling is wrong and totally unjustified,” he said in a written statement. “American families deserve to know when they’re serving their families wild Alaskan salmon versus some genetically tampered fish.” It’s not yet clear what genetically engineered salmon could mean for Alaska. The way that such products may affect pricing for Alaska salmon has yet to be seen, Woodrow said. “That would be the concern: If you can raise a salmon faster and be able to deliver this product for potentially less overhead, is that going to affect the price of salmon in the marketplace?” Woodrow said. “And that is something we will continue to watch.” In 2015, the FDA approved an application related to genetically engineered salmon from a Massachusetts company called AquaBounty Technologies. But the import alert prevented the company’s products from entering the U.S. Lifting the ban means the company’s AquAdvantage salmon eggs “can now be imported to the company’s contained grow-out facility in Indiana to be raised into salmon for food,” the FDA said. The company has a facility in the province of Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, where the salmon eggs are produced, according to the FDA. AquaBounty’s technology integrates a chinook salmon growth hormone gene into the genome of Atlantic salmon, resulting in a fish that grows faster than a standard Atlantic salmon, according to the company’s website. The FDA determined in a 2015 review that the fish is safe to eat. With its technology, AquaBounty wants to “spur a radically more responsible and sustainable way of farming Atlantic salmon,” its website says. The product is already sold in Canada. The United Fishermen of Alaska referred to the genetically engineered salmon as “frankenfish” in a statement March 8. The group said the FDA lifting the ban without requiring clear labeling for the product is a “disservice” to consumers and a blow to the state’s fishing communities. It’s not clear when genetically engineered salmon might hit the market, said Woodrow. A phone call and email to AquaBounty were not returned March 11. Instead of mandatory labeling for genetically engineered salmon, Murkowski’s office said, producers will be allowed to use QR codes or 1-800 numbers that would refer customers to more information. “So let’s say you’re in a grocery store and you see a 1-800 number. Are you going to pick up a phone and call that 1-800 number before you check out?” said Karina Borger, a spokeswoman for Murkowski. “The senator has been pushing for clear labeling from the get-go.” Another one of Murkowski’s concerns, Borger said, is about a man-made fish that could outgrow natural stocks. The senator has introduced legislation over the years to mandate the labeling of genetically engineered salmon. “When we talk about GE salmon, it’s separate from the larger GMO debate,” Borger said. “Genetically engineered animals are not crops.” Frances Leach, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, is concerned that genetically engineered salmon on the market could potentially mean consumers will buy less Alaska salmon. “The consumer … is going to see wild Alaska salmon and this other salmon that they don’t know what it is. They just know it’s salmon, and likely it’s going to be cheaper because they can create these GMO salmon for cheaper than we go out and fish for salmon,” she said. ASMI won’t be specifically targeting marketing efforts against genetically engineered salmon, Woodrow said. ASMI sees it as another farmed product to which wild-caught Alaska salmon is superior. “In the retail space or food service space, it’s another farmed salmon product, and we’ll be competing against this product like we have with other farmed salmon,” he said.

Dunleavy takes decisive win against Begich for gov

Republican Mike Dunleavy is set to become the next governor of Alaska after building a wide lead over Democrat Mark Begich with most precincts reporting. The former state senator from Wasilla had about 52.4 percent of the vote with 98 percent of precincts reporting early Nov. 7. Begich, a former U.S. senator, had about 43.6 percent of the vote. Gov. Bill Walker, who suspended his re-election campaign and threw his support to Begich, had 2 percent of the vote. Dunleavy’s win would mean the Alaska Republican Party taking back the governorship after four years of Walker, an independent, in office. At a Republican watch party at the Anchorage Alehouse on Election Day, Dunleavy thanked the packed crowd around 11 p.m. He had walked into the restaurant earlier that night to cheers and people chanting his name. “I’m feeling good about where we’re at and I’m feeling really good about where we’re going to go with the state of Alaska, so I want to thank everybody for all of your support, being here tonight and throughout this campaign,” he told the crowd. “We’ll keep watching the numbers but it looks good right now.” In an interview, Dunleavy described his campaign as one of the greatest experiences of his life. The Dunleavy campaign released a statement around midnight on Election Day saying the candidate had won, referring to him as “governor-elect.” Begich and his campaign manager didn’t return calls just before 1 a.m. Begich’s campaign had not issued a statement about the race through its his campaign website or social media pages early on the morning of Nov. 7. Dunleavy, 57, and Begich, 56, have been locked in a two-way fight since Walker suspended his campaign for re-election Oct. 19. Just days before that, his former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott unexpectedly resigned after making unspecified “inappropriate comments” to a woman. Walker dropping out turned a crowded three-way race into a clearer Republican-versus-Democrat battle for the state’s top elected office. But because Walker didn’t formally withdraw from the race by the Sept. 4 deadline, his name and Mallott’s remained on the ballot. Walker is the only independent governor in the country, meaning Republicans nationally would count a Dunleavy victory as a win to flip a governorship red in the midterm elections. Dunleavy said in an interview that the election results show his message resonated with voters. “I think it’s the message that we can develop our resources, that we don’t have to default to taxes or Permanent Fund until we get our fiscal house in order. That we need to create jobs,” he said. “I’m not going to celebrate, for example, the expansion of welfare programs,” he said. “I’m going to celebrate the expansion of job creation in the state of Alaska, developing our resources in the state of Alaska. I think that’s what Alaskans want. “We’re going to try to have a night where we’re able to fall asleep and not answer the phone for a couple hours.” State Sen. Kevin Meyer was elected lieutenant governor alongside Dunleavy. Begich walked into Flattop Pizza + Pool in downtown Anchorage on Election Night with his family and Call. A crowd of supporters there cheered and chanted, “Mark.” In an interview around 9:45 p.m., Begich said that he anticipated a close race. “I’ve been looking forward to this day. This is the day you wait for,” he said. “You wait for these numbers and then you — one of two things will happen: You win or you lose. And at the end of the day, we put a great agenda forward.” This year’s governor’s race came at the tail end of a deep economic recession in Alaska, driven by a crash in oil prices. Lawmakers drained billions of dollars from the state’s savings account to fill the resulting budget gaps. Walker also reduced Alaskans’ Permanent Fund dividend checks in 2016 in response to the state’s fiscal crisis. Lawmakers capped the oil-wealth payouts the following two years. Both Dunleavy and Begich attempted to tap into the resentment some Alaskans felt after three years of reduced dividend checks. The PFD and the economy, as well as crime, arose as key campaign topics for both candidates. Dunleavy and Begich both campaigned on reducing crime in Alaska, but diverged sharply on their plans for the budget and the PFD. Dunleavy promised full PFDs under the formula in law. He wants to cut the state budget and limit spending. Begich has said Alaska needs revenues, and he’d support certain new taxes. He wants to calculate dividends using a different formula, and use a portion of the money drawn from the Permanent Fund each year to pay for public education. Libertarian candidate Billy Toien was also on the ballot in the governor’s race. He had less than 2 percent of the vote with 98 percent of precincts reporting. Around 8 p.m. Tuesday, as people trickled into Election Central at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage, Toien sat at a table with several people holding signs bearing his name. “It’s been long and kind of grueling and this is the grand finale,” he said, “and I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the show and watch for the outcome.” Of Alaska’s 573,798 registered voters, about 57 percent are nonpartisan or undeclared, about 25 percent are Republicans and about 13 percent are Democrats. Before Walker, the last three governors in Alaska were Republican. Walker, too, had been a Republican, but switched to independent for his gubernatorial bid in 2014. Dunleavy was first elected to the state Senate in 2012. He resigned from the senate in January to focus on his campaign for governor. Dunleavy also worked as a school teacher, principal and superintendent in Alaska. He served on the school board of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. Born in Pennsylvania, Dunleavy moved to Alaska in 1983. This year’s governor’s race was also marked by big spending by independent expenditure groups. The groups dumped more money into the race in the final weeks leading up to Election Day, trying to win voters over by pushing out a flurry of advertisements and signs. Those groups aren’t allowed to coordinate with campaigns, but they are able to raise unlimited money from individuals and organizations. The Nov. 6 ballot count includes early votes cast through Nov. 5 and absentee ballots logged and reviewed up until Friday. An elections division spokeswoman said Nov. 6 she didn’t have a number of how many ballots will be outstanding, including the number of questioned ballots. Absentee by-mail ballots had to be postmarked by Election Day.

Questions loom over new two-way race for governor

Gov. Bill Walker's announcement on Friday that he was suspending his re-election campaign turned the Alaska governor's race on its head with just two-and-a-half weeks until Election Day and early voting starting Monday. A three-way race that left some voters fretting over whether to support Walker, an independent, or Democrat Mark Begich, is now a much clearer head-to-head fight to become the next governor in red-state Alaska. It's Republican Mike Dunleavy, a former state senator from Wasilla, against Begich, a former U.S. senator and Anchorage mayor. Walker dropping his bid for re-election has sparked renewed enthusiasm among Democrats, with some seeing a clearer path to victory for Begich now in a two-way race, said Jay Parmley, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party. "There is an enthusiasm that this is doable," Parmley said on Saturday. "It's not excitement that Bill Walker has dropped out. It's really, 'Gosh, this is doable and we want to be part of it.'" Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, was elected in 2014 on a so-called unity ticket with Byron Mallott, a Democrat, and is the only governor in America not elected as either a Republican or Democrat. Walker and Mallott remained locked in their re-election campaign until this past week. Mallott, who Walker has called his closest friend, abruptly resigned from office and stepped away from the re-election campaign on Tuesday after making unspecified "inappropriate comments" to a woman. Three days later, Walker dropped out of the race, and threw support to Begich. Walker said he had talked to many Alaskans and determined Begich had a better chance of winning in a race against Dunleavy. While there are a lot of things he disagrees with Begich about, Walker said, he'd still be better for Alaska than Dunleavy. Walker signs removed The timing of Walker and Mallott quitting the race complicates voting. Though they're no longer running for re-election, it's too late to take them off the ballots, which have already been printed. Voters will see their names there alongside Dunleavy, Begich, Libertarian candidate Billy Toien and their running mates. What's more: Some Alaskans have already voted. As of Friday, the Alaska Division of Elections had sent out 23,773 absentee ballots, and Alaskans had voted and returned 3,076 of them. The division did not have information on Saturday about the implications of Walker dropping out on voting, including what it means for voters who may have already sent in their absentee ballots and voted for the Walker-Mallott ticket. Samantha Miller, division spokeswoman, said in a text message Saturday, "We are still processing everything and will have more information on Monday." After Walker's announcement on Friday, his campaign team was busy fielding incoming Facebook messages and calls, said campaign manager John-Henry Heckendorn. He saw "messages of trust" on Facebook, he said: "that if (Walker) believed that was the right thing to do, it probably was." Staffers also convened a statewide call with coordinators and volunteers to explain what happened. "Campaign phone was blowing up," Heckendorn said. "Clear out the voicemail inbox and half an hour later it was full again." On Saturday, volunteer crews were out taking down the big Walker-Mallott campaign signs scattered across Anchorage. The campaign has stopped accepting donations and staffers have to figure out how much money the campaign has left and what it's allowed to do with those funds, Heckendorn said. Given how late it is in the election cycle, "it's not like we're sitting on a big stack of money," he said. The campaign is "figuring out logistically and legalistically what the order of operations is for standing things down before the election," he said. Part of that involves what the Walker campaign will do with the advertising time it has already bought. "If we can get our money back, if we can sell it to somebody else, and that kind of thing," Heckendorn said. Walker-Mallott signs on the sides of city buses that roll around Anchorage are set to be removed on Sunday, he said. Asked what he personally was going to do next, Heckendorn said: "I'm going to go take signs down." Shift to two-way For some voters, the choice was clear after Walker's announcement, which he delivered in an emotional speech at the Alaska Federation of Natives' 52nd annual convention. Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state representative and executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, was planning to vote for Walker and said now he is "definitely" voting for Begich. He thinks the majority of people who were supporting the governor's re-election will likewise migrate that direction. "The deal with Walker and Begich — you kinda like both of them," he said. "For me, Walker is a leader and he's made tough decisions no other governor has had the guts to make." A cornerstone of Dunleavy's platform is restoring a full Permanent Fund dividend to Alaskans, after Walker reduced the annual oil-wealth payouts. Halcro worries that a Dunleavy governorship would grow Alaska's budget deficit. The stakes are high, Halcro said. "If the state is ever going to grow and move out of this boom-and-bust mentality," he said, "this is a defining moment." Alaska Republican Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock said Saturday he thinks it's not so clear-cut that groups that had endorsed Walker, such as labor organizations and Alaska Native corporations, will flock to Begich. "Democrats' response has been, 'OK, now we can add Walker's number to our numbers and now we're running an even race,' and that's not gonna happen," he said. Some groups that had supported Walker are still deciding what's next. It's not clear yet what the governor's announcement means for Unite Alaska, the independent expenditure group that formed in support of his re-election. Independent expenditure groups can't coordinate with campaigns, but they can raise unlimited funds from individuals and organizations. Unite Alaska had raised more than $1 million on behalf of Walker, according to state filings. In response to emailed questions Saturday about what happens to the money Unite Alaska has raised, a spokesman sent back a short statement from group co-chair Barbara Donatelli: "No decisions have been made." The Alaska AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the state, had formally endorsed Walker in August. President Vince Beltrami did not return a phone call Saturday about what the organization will do now. 'Full steam ahead' Walker's announcement Friday won't mean a change in strategy for the Dunleavy campaign, spokesman Daniel McDonald said. "The campaign is still full steam ahead and nothing is changing," he said. Begich is keeping his schedule of upcoming debates and forums, said Nora Morse, his campaign manager. She said the campaign is reaching out to the event hosts to reaffirm their attendance and their desire to speak to those groups, even if some of the debates are cancelled in instances where only Begich and Walker had agreed to go. Meanwhile, the Alaska Democratic Party is starting a big push to get out the message that Walker is out of the governor's race, Parmley said. He said they'll use "every means available," including phone calls, text messages, door knocking and social media posts to ensure people know that even though Walker's name is on the ballot, he is no longer in the race. "If someone intended to go vote for Bill Walker, but will now vote for Mark Begich we want to make sure they know that before they walk into the ballot box — that's really important," he said. Election Day is Nov. 6.  

Lt. Gov. Mallott resigns after 'inappropriate comments'

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott has resigned effective immediately, Gov. Bill Walker's office said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. The statement said Mallott "recently made inappropriate comments," though did not elaborate. "Byron recently made inappropriate comments that do not reflect the sterling level of behavior required in his role as Lieutenant Governor," Walker said in the statement. "I learned of the incident last night. Byron has taken full responsibility for his actions and has resigned." Mallott's resignation comes three weeks before Election Day, with the governor, elected as an independent, facing Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Mike Dunleavy. Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, was sworn into the office during a private ceremony Tuesday afternoon. Dr. Jay Butler, chief medical officer in the Division of Public Health, was appointed commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, the governor's office said.

Begich refuses calls to drop out of three-way gov race

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, under pressure from some in his party to withdraw from the Alaska governor’s race, said Sept. 4 that he isn’t dropping out. “Let me make it very clear to the reporters and others: If you want to talk about the process, talk to someone else,” he told press and a crowd of cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters in Anchorage. “We are done with that. I’m in the race to win. It’s a three-way race, so get used to it.” The Democrat’s announcement came about 90 minutes before the state’s deadline to withdraw from the Nov. 6 general election. Begich is facing off against incumbent Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, and former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican. Some Democrats have said they’re concerned Begich and Walker will split the vote, resulting in a Dunleavy win. Walker is a Republican-turned-independent, who is running again this year with his Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, a Democrat. In a statement Sept. 4, Walker said no matter how many candidates are in the governor’s race, the election will come down to decisions made on the Permanent Fund and fiscal plan. He described those decisions as tough and ones that “party politicians would like to run away from.” The Dunleavy campaign also used the announcement to further its messaging, referring to Walker and Mallott as a “failed experiment” and Begich as a “career politician” in a statement. The candidates for Alaska’s governor will vie for votes in a state where about 57 percent of registered voters are nonpartisan or undeclared, according to numbers from the Alaska Division of Elections. About 25 percent of the state’s 567,403 registered voters are registered as Republicans, and about 13 percent are registered as Democrats. “I don’t think any rigid analysis of politics is going to help describe what’s going to happen in the next 60 days,” said Alaska Republican Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock. “I think, partly after this primary, it’s a little presumptuous for anyone to say, ‘this is how this is gonna come down.’ … Alaskan elections are always so unique.” Another candidate, Libertarian William “Billy” Toien, is also running for governor. A petition on calling for Begich to drop out of the race had about 900 signatures by Sept. 4, on top of the original 100 it had when it was posted online last month. The original signers included Alaska Native corporation executives, current and former lawmakers, members of Walker’s administration, and others. The deadline for candidates to withdraw from the Nov. 6 general election was 5 p.m. on Sept. 4. If a candidate drops out between that deadline and the general election, their name will still appear on the ballot because it will have already been printed, but votes for them won’t be counted, said Division of Elections spokeswoman Samantha Miller. Dunleavy has a better chance of winning in a three-way race than a two-way race, but he’s not the “automatic winner,” said Ivan Moore, a longtime Alaska pollster who has done polling work for both Begich and Walker. “I think with the three of them in the race, the dynamics could swing any way,” Moore said. “I think it’s legitimately anyone’s race.”

Dunleavy cruises to GOP pick for governor

Former Wasilla state Sen. Mike Dunleavy built a big early lead and held it over former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell on Aug. 21, winning the Republican primary race for Alaska governor. His victory sets up a three-way race in November’s general election, with Dunleavy facing incumbent Gov. Bill Walker, who is running as an independent, and former Anchorage mayor and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat. With 98 percent of the precincts counted statewide by Aug. 22, Dunleavy had 62 percent of the vote compared with 32 percent for Treadwell. Dunleavy claimed victory shortly after 11 p.m. Aug. 21 at a Downtown Anchorage hotel, where the Alaska Republican Party held its watch party and where he had watched the results come in most of the night. Dunleavy thanked his supporters, his campaign staff, the other GOP candidates and his wife. He said he would work to build trust among those who didn’t vote for him. “This is a Republican state and we need to take back this governorship,” he said as the crowd cheered. “By working together, we can make it happen.” Meanwhile, state Sen. Kevin Meyer of Anchorage appeared on his way to winning the Republican primary race for lieutenant governor. In an interview, Dunleavy said he planned to celebrate his primary win by going home to Wasilla with his wife, Rose, and feeding their three dogs, Mr. Tito, Blue and Olive. On Aug. 22, he said, the next race begins. Tuckerman Babcock, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said Tuesday’s results signal that the party is behind Dunleavy. “This is a remarkable margin,” he said. Treadwell, in congratulating Dunleavy, also expressed disappointment in the lack of attention on the primary campaigns. “We have to bring the Republican Party together because right now the ideas that we brought forward on trying to save jobs, build jobs in this economy, having experienced people run this thing, we did not get very much attention,” he said. “The biggest issue was who was tallest.” During their campaigns, Dunleavy and Treadwell agreed on a range of issues. Both are pro-life conservatives. Both have said they want to protect Alaskans’ annual Permanent Fund dividend checks. With political experience and significant campaign funding, the two had emerged as front-runners in a Republican primary alongside five other candidates. Dunleavy got into the race much earlier than Treadwell, who filed to run at the last moment in June. Since Aug. 11, Dunleavy has raised $8,000 in donations to his campaign, bringing his fundraising total to about $320,000. Treadwell received $9,000 in donations after Aug. 11 for a total of $145,000. While Dunleavy was the top money-raiser among Republican candidates, donations to his campaign are just part of the picture. He also has benefited from $760,000 — including $16,500 in the past week — pouring into an independent expenditure group fueled largely by Dunleavy’s brother and sportfishing advocate and developer Bob Penney. Campaign season spending pales in comparison to the last governor’s race in 2014, when a three-person fight for the Republican nod for U.S. Senate and a controversial ballot measure on oil taxes fueled a flurry of advertising. That year, primary election turnout was about 39 percent. This year, that number figures to be far lower — if only because the number of registered voters has grown to include people who applied for Permanent Fund dividends but who do not normally cast ballots. Third-party groups can spend an unlimited amount in Alaska campaigns. A group formed to support Treadwell has raised about $60,000, including $7,500 in the past week. In an interview Tuesday night, Treadwell mentioned the money Dunleavy supporters raised. “I ran against essentially a self-funded candidate and our campaign finance laws basically make it very, very hard. This was checkbook deterrence,” he said. “I want to congratulate Mike on his apparent victory.” Asked if he was conceding, Treadwell did not say yes. “What does a concession mean?” he said. “I would like to congratulate whoever won this election, and if it’s Mike, congratulations.” The general election is Nov. 6.
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