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Environmental Groups Worry that GM Salmon Could Cause Irreparable Harm

It’s unclear what would happen if one of the genetically modified salmon, dubbed “Frankenfish” by some, made it out into the wild. Some fear they could push out populations of wild salmon or otherwise alter the environment.

by Wyatt Marshall
Nov 16 2015, 10:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Dexter HP

Consumers have a seemingly bottomless appetite for salmon, and the majority of it—70 percent—is farmed. We chow down on 2.4 million tons of farm-raised salmon annually, and the World Wildlife Foundation says salmon aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world. One problem the industry has faced: raising salmon to market weight takes up to three years.

One company has been trying to speed that growth process up using genetic modification, but the Canadian government is saying not so fast.

READ: Almost Every Kind of Wild Fish Is Infected with Worms

For more than two decades, the Massachusetts-based company AquaBounty has been developing a genetically modified salmon that cuts the production cycle of market-weight salmon in half, from 32 to 36 months to a much shorter span of 16 to 18 months. The super salmon are produced using a Chinook salmon growth hormone gene and a gene from an ocean pout—a visually unappealing eel-type fish—which are injected into fertilized wild salmon eggs.

AquaBounty's salmon, officially named AquAdvantage Salmon, has been waiting for FDA approval for 20 years, and recently the company seemed to have made a significant step toward human consumption of their salmon when the government of Canada approved an egg production facility in Prince Edward Island. Now, a Canadian federal court will hear appeals as to why the facility is a risk to the environment and the plans should be overturned.

Though AquaBounty salmon are grown on land in large tanks inside warehouses, there is a concern that if a genetically modified salmon were to escape from a facility, it could be disastrous for local wild salmon populations. As essentially an invasive species, it's unclear what would happen if one of the genetically modified salmon, dubbed "Frankenfish" by some, made it out into the wild. Some fear they could push out populations of wild salmon or otherwise alter the environment.

"Once that fish breeds with another wild salmon, you can never put the genie back in the box," said Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, one of the groups protesting the facility.

AquaBounty says that it takes every precaution to contain the GM fish, and a spokesperson told NPR that an escape would be "virtually impossible." For one, its salmon are raised in land-based warehouse facilities. Screens, filters, and nets block water that is discharged from the facility. Moreover, if a fish were to escape, the salmon raised are all female, and they are rendered sterile. (Though if there's one thing we learned from Jurassic Park, it's that even an all-female population doesn't necessarily eliminate the possibility of more raptors—or salmon.)

But environmental groups aren't convinced. They say that land-based facilities can be located near rivers, and escapes are unavoidable in farm fishing. The facility where the salmon mature is near a river in Panama, and future facilities, if the fish were approved and the farming procedures widely adopted, could be anywhere. There's also a very small rate of failure in the sterilization method, and if some fish were to escape, they could potentially breed with local wild fish.

What would happen next is anyone's guess, but a study in BioScience says that if an escaped salmon did create chaos in local ecosystems, it would be "essentially impossible" to eradicate the population of GM salmon once they were in the wild.

AquaBounty says that its fish are the most sustainable farmed salmon out there, and their process reduces the amount of feed needed to produce an adult salmon. Since the facilities are on land, the company also argues that its fish are closer to the consumer. It hopes to reduce the amount of salmon that we import from abroad—the US imports 86 percent of its seafood, leading to a large carbon output as salmon travels long distances to the consumer. AquaBounty's salmon are antibiotic-free, whereas farmed salmon imported from abroad can be heavily medicated.

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A Canadian court will debate the risks and benefits of the genetically modified salmon on Tuesday, but AquaBounty says they are confident they will get approval. While the salmon still waits for approval here in the US, a preliminary comment from the FDA found that AquAdvantage salmon pose no significant impact to the environment under the proposed farming system. Notably, the proposed production facilities are not located inside the US.

So depending on what happens in Canada, AquAdvantage's salmon could be coming to a sushi roll in your future.