COMMENTS? SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The battle over genetically modified food has expanded from land to sea. An application to sell Atlantic salmon with super-growth genes now sits before federal regulators, who must decide if Frankenfish -- as its legions of critics call it -- is safe for the dinner table. A Food and Drug Administration ruling is expected to influence the fate of dozens of other animals such as cows, chickens and pigs that could be cloned and genetically engineered in laboratories across the country. The genetic tinkering is aimed at faster stocking of supermarket meat counters and dairy sections. The engineered salmon, raised by Aqua Bounty Farms of Waltham, Mass., grow to market size twice as fast as their natural cousins. Supporters say these salmon would sell for less in supermarkets, while easing pressure on wild or hatchery-raised fish. Opponents fear the engineered fish will hasten the demise of naturally grown species if allowed to crossbreed. They also argue that human health risks have not been thoroughly studied. While work on transplanting fish genes has been underway for about 15 years, the pending approval has brought the debate to a head. The FDA has given no indication on when it may rule, though Aqua Bounty said it expects a decision by 2004. In the meantime, one state has enacted its own law while another considers legislation. Maryland permits farming of genetically modified fish in ponds or lakes that don't connect to other waterways, although transgenic fish in the United States are currently only raised in tanks separated from natural habitats. California is considering outlawing genetically engineered fish. A bill pending in the state Senate would ban the import, possession or release of the fish anywhere in California, with violators fined up to $50,000. California supermarkets and fish markets, but not restaurants, would have to label genetically modified fish, under another pending bill. Meanwhile, tinkering with other breeds goes on. English researchers are working on tilapia, while Canadian researchers concentrate on Chinook salmon. Transgenic tilapia are being considered for approval by Cuba, and genetically altered carp by China. New Zealand researchers already developed salmon they said might reach 550 pounds, but halted the project because of public objections. Fast-growing tilapia could become a new staple in the developing world, said Norman Maclean of the University of Southampton, England, School of Biological Sciences. Opponents say the escape of genetically engineered fish could soon drive a wild population to extinction, citing a Purdue study showing that the "superfish" could have a competitive advantage over native fish for food, mates and habitat. But the Purdue study tracked tiny Japanese fish called medaka that were altered with a growth gene from Atlantic salmon. Environmental research so far shows the opposite may be true for salmon themselves, or for catfish, researchers said. Gene-altered Atlantic salmon swim slower, reproduce poorly, use more oxygen and take more risks for food than their wild cousins, said Aqua Bounty vice president Joseph McGonigle and Auburn University fisheries researcher Rex Dunham. Transgenic catfish have about a 10 percent lower survival rate if they're forced to compete with native fish, said Dunham. "They're simply not adapted to life in the wild," said McGonigle. "We just seem to be an easy target because fish have that gee-whiz factor." McGonigle said there are hundreds of adult fish that are kept in tanks inside locked buildings on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Water from the tanks is filtered into an underground septic system and not discharged into local waterways. Regardless, researchers are attempting to head off the environmental debate by promising to use only sterilized fish that couldn't reproduce even if they escape. Naturally grown Atlantic salmon have escaped from the ocean pens where they are raised in Washington's Puget Sound and in waters across the border in British Columbia. The fish are an ocean away from their normal breeding grounds, and biologists say interbreeding with Pacific salmon is unlikely. However, Canadian biologists have found young Atlantic salmon in two streams on Vancouver Island, indicating that the farm-raised fish have been able to reproduce. Already, more than half the salmon sold in the United States is farm-raised. Fish farming is a $40-million-a-year business in Washington, where farmers raise about 10 million pounds annually. That's dwarfed by British Columbia, where farmers annually produce 80 million pounds of Atlantic salmon.