We Might All Be Eating Genetically Engineered Salmon Soon

When Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein In 1818, the idea of ​​a sentient creature engineered by humans seemed a mere fantasy. But now science fiction has become a science fact.

Humans have learned to make genetic modifications to animals, plants—and even to themselves. In the Pacific Northwest, where Native American tribes have long regarded salmon as an integral part of their culture and livelihood, genetically engineered salmon are slowly ramping up in sales and production, driving deep concerns among Native people and environmentalists.

If genetically engineered salmon swim out into the wild, reproducing with wild salmon, could this affect the genes of the salmon offspring in the rivers and fundamentally alter the future of the entire wild species?

“Salmon are part of our life,” says Guy Capoeman, president of the Quinault tribe. In a canoe carving shed on the banks of the Quinault River, Capoeman describes his tribe’s connection to salmon, his slow words echoing in the wooden chamber. He says the early Quinault man and woman were able to bring in much needed salmon from the rivers, enabling their survival.

Today, this intimate relationship with salmon remains powerful to Pacific Northwest tribal members, who have the longest history of living by the rivers feeding into the Pacific Ocean on the western shores of the modern United States. Salmon swim to these rivers against the current each year to spawn. Tribal members fish and feed on salmon and consider it an integral part of their culture.

In 2014, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians published a resolution strongly opposing the introduction of genetically engineered salmon. It cited, among other reasons, “the disproportionate impact genetically engineered salmon would have on the health of Indian people in the Pacific Northwest, their culture and society and the continued meaningful implementation of their treaty right to fish.”

But the US Food and Drug Administration nonetheless gave its approval for what critics, harkening back to Shelley’s novel, call “Frankenfish.” Around the world, companies engineer more than thirty-five species of fish for faster production, including trout, catfish, tilapia, and salmon.

Genetically engineered salmon aren’t new, but they’ve gained more prevalence in recent years. In 1989, researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada succeeded in genetically modifying Atlantic salmon, transferring a gene to enable the fish to better tolerate the cold, harsh conditions in Newfoundland and Labrador waters. The same transfer technique was then used with growth hormone DNA from Pacific chinook salmon and a gene from ocean pout, an eel-like fish. The resulting fish, created with genetic material from three species, grew to weigh five or six kilograms, while their counterparts only weighed a quarter of a kilogram.

Just two years later, the company AquaBounty Technologies was founded based on this genetic mix of three species. It sought to commercialize genetically modified Atlantic salmon under the name “AquAdvantage salmon.”

The genetic heterogeneity allows the AquAdvantage salmon to grow twice as fast as regularly farmed Atlantic salmon, sometimes more. In a study published in Nature In 1992, researchers found that genetically engineered salmon could grow up to thirteen times faster than their non-engineered counterparts.

In November 2015, AquaBounty’s salmon product became the first genetically modified animal in the United States approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. Health Canada followed suit, approving AquAdvantage salmon in 2016.

In 2020, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe in Washington announced a joint venture with Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to rear sterile female steelhead rainbow trout, a native species. But other Indigenous tribes have raised concerns over the farm’s potential effects on tribal fishing rights and its location on land with cultural importance.

AquaBounty currently produces its salmon eggs in two land-based farm facilities, in the town of Albany, Indiana, and on Prince Edward Island in Canada. The eggs then hatch and grow as fish in a grow-out facility in Panama.

From a location standpoint, these farms do not clash with the interests of tribes in Washington state. But there remain numerous questions about whether this Frankenfish might affect the environment, other salmon, or the humans consuming it.

If genetically engineered salmon swim out into the wild, reproducing with wild salmon, could this affect the genes of the salmon offspring in the rivers and fundamentally alter the future of the entire wild species? Will the modified salmon compete with wild salmon over food and rearing locations?

The Food and Drug Administration argues that AquAdvantage salmon do not have a huge impact on other salmon because of the “extremely low likelihood” that they could escape into the wild in the first place. It found AquaBounty’s land facilities to be well-contained, with several barriers preventing the reared salmon from swimming away.

However, genetically engineered salmon could hurt the future profitability of fishing practices employed by Indigenous fish farms. In its 2021 annual report, AquaBounty indicated that it sold its salmon to distributors at just $3.36 per pound. AllRecipes pegs Atlantic salmon as $10-15 per pound for ordinary consumers.

With the mass production and the genetically engineered harvested salmon, which are made to grow faster, fish prices could be driven significantly lower by AquaBounty, to the detriment of other fishers and farmers.

But for AquaBounty, making it in the US markets will be challenging. Many grocery chains and food service providers, including Costco, Whole Foods, and Aramark, have announced that they will not carry genetically modified salmon products. As of 2021, the company posted an annual net loss of more than $22 million.

AquAdvantage salmon hasn’t appeared widely in grocery stores in the United States, but it will soon begin being served up in restaurants—in part because, unlike grocery products, items on menus are not federally required to be marked as genetically modified—and AquaBounty It appears to be confident of its eventual market success.

The company plans to build a third facility in Ohio, which will start salmon production in 2023. The Ohio farm will be four times larger than the Indiana one and five times the size of the Canada plant, measuring an estimated 479,000 square feet.

The approval for production and the regulation of labeling genetically modified foods are processes headed by two different government agencies: The Food and Drug Administration handles the investigations into the production facilities, while the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service has the final say over how bioengineered foods should be labeled.

Previously, the Food and Drug Administration banned AquaBounty from importing AquAdvantage eggs or salmon due to unclear labeling. The agency lifted that import ban in March 2019 after labeling became consistently regulated. When they arrive in grocery stores, AquAdvantage salmon need to be labeled as bioengineered.

It is a development that does not sit well with some Native people.

“Our food system is about lifting people up, not taking from one another,” says Romajean Thomas, the director of Feed Seven Generations and a member of the Muckleshoot tribe.


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