Will GMO salmon harm Alaska’s fishing industry?

Fishermen fear AquaBounty’s creation will collapse salmon prices, but history tells a more complex tale.


By now you may have seen November’s big biotech news: The Food and Drug Administration has approved the AquAdvantage salmon, a genetically modified Atlantic salmon that contains growth-promoting genes from Pacific chinook and an eel-like fish called the ocean pout. It’s the first time a GM animal has ever been approved for human consumption, and it should hit grocery shelves in around two years. Cue the panic!

Concern has focused on the Frankenfish’s potential to inflict environmental harm, including the possibility that the creatures could escape farms and outcompete or breed with wild fish. To reduce that threat, AquaBounty plans to grow its creations in terrestrial tanks in Panama and Canada, and will only rear sterile females. Sterilization isn’t foolproof, and anyone who’s ever seen Jurassic Park knows that life has a way of foiling the best laid-plans of hubristic genetic engineers (some activists point out, for instance, that AquaBounty's egg production facility is perilously close to an estuary). Nonetheless, the FDA’s panel of experts concluded the technology “would not have a significant impact on the environment of the United States.

That ruling angered Alaska’s $6.4 billion commercial fishing industry, which fears that a new influx of farmed protein will degrade its bottom line. State politicians have fallen into step: Senator Lisa Murkowski described herself as “livid” at the approval, sentiments echoed by Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young. No, you’re not dreaming: Environmental activists are making common cause with the congressman who’s tried to open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to drilling 11 separate times. Murkowski even threatened to block the appointment of the next FDA commissioner. But what will the AquAdvantage salmon actually mean for Alaska’s fisheries?

Will wild Alaskan salmon lose market share to genetically modified fish?
Ben Goldfarb

To understand how genetically modified salmon might shape the lives of fishermen, you have to travel back to 1980. That year, farmed salmon comprised just 1 percent of the global market, while Alaskan wild represented more than 40 percent. As salmon farms came online in Norway, Chile, British Columbia and New Zealand throughout the 1980s, however, Alaska's fisheries saw their influence erode. By 2004, the 49th state was supplying just 15 percent of the world’s salmon, and prices were a measly one-third of their former levels.

Despite dire predictions, however, aquaculture did not spell doom for Alaska's fisheries. After bottoming out in '02, wild salmon’s value recovered in the mid-2000s — even as farming captured an ever greater share of the market. (These days, farmed salmon is at 70 percent and climbing.)

How could that be? First, fishermen got shrewd about marketing, branding “Alaskan wild salmon” as a healthful, natural alternative to farmed fish. And they learned to improve their product’s quality, for instance by storing their catch in refrigerated seawater that kept it fresher longer. But they also got a vital assist from their hated competitors — salmon farmers. By seeking out novel markets in countries like Brazil and China in the ‘80s and ‘90s, aquaculturists had acclimated a new class of consumers to the unfamiliar pink-fleshed fish. Diners worldwide suddenly craved salmon, and prices for wild fish climbed with surging international demand. The rising tide of aquaculture had lifted the boats of Alaskan fishermen.

History, then, suggests that a new source of farmed fish might not be a complete catastrophe for fishermen. Gunnar Knapp, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, speculates that if AquaBounty somehow made salmon as cheap as chicken, it could price out wild fish — or stimulate another round of beneficial demand expansion. "You could end up with a new opportunity to carve out a distinct niche," Knapp speculates. 

Still, you can’t blame Alaskans for being anxious. Whereas farmers can control exactly how many fish they take to market (and when, and where), fishermen are subject to the whims of Mother Nature. In 2015, for instance, the sockeye run in Alaska's Bristol Bay exceeded 50 million fish, one of the strongest in history. The bounty proved a market-flooding disaster for fishermen, who saw prices plummet to just 50 cents a pound. (In 2014, they received around $1.20.) Poor exchange rates and a Russian seafood embargo haven’t helped, either.

“We still have a lot of product left over from last year,” laments Verner Wilson, a commercial fisherman from Dillingham, Alaska. “With where prices are right now, people have to work twice as hard for half the pay.”

Poor exchange rates and big runs have eaten away at the profits of Bristol Bay's commercial salmon fishermen.
Ben Goldfarb

With his industry already struggling, Wilson fears that GM salmon will depress prices even further. He’s petitioning the FDA to rescind its approval. Whether or not the feds budge, pressure from fishermen and anti-GMO activists has already dented AquaBounty’s market: Stores including Costco and Whole Foods have announced that they don’t plan to sell Frankenfish.

Even so, it's worth asking how much American markets really matter. Though the U.S. is indeed the world’s largest farmed salmon consumer, the silvery fish is a global commodity, and no single agency nor buyer sets the price. Remember what happened with aquaculture: Foreign farmed salmon, grown in Chile and Norway for export to Japan, still managed to initially crater prices for Alaskan wild, even though the state banned salmon aquaculture in its waters. Meanwhile, more than half the value of Bristol Bay’s fisheries come from Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and a host of other countries. (The Japanese prefer frozen Alaskan filets, while the Brits, notorious for lackluster cuisine, would rather eat their salmon out of cans.) And to no one’s surprise, AquaBounty is actively exploring foreign buyers.

Yet the company might find itself swimming upstream. The European Union has a notorious distaste for genetic tinkering: Over half the E.U. opted out of growing genetically modified crops this fall, and some countries, like France, have severe restrictions on the sale, marketing and labeling of GMOs. But while it's hard to imagine many European nations embracing AquAdvantage salmon anytime soon, the FDA’s seal of approval could convince hesitant countries elsewhere to issue their own green lights. It may also give other aspiring genetic modifiers the confidence to proceed with research and development. "There's been a feeling that many companies have been waiting to see if the US will approve GM salmon before going ahead themselves," Helen Sang, a genetic researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told the BBC.

Add it all up, says Knapp, and “the effects won’t be immediate, they won’t be simple, and they won’t necessarily be entirely bad.” Ultimately, reconnecting American consumers with their bountiful wild seafood resources will accomplish more for commercial fishermen than any FDA action. As the author Paul Greenberg reported in American Catch, the United States imports 91 percent of the seafood we eat — and exports a full third of the fish we catch. That's far more problematic than the approval of a single genetically engineered fish. “We need to rely less on these foreign markets,” says Kelly Harrell, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, “and use some creativity and innovation in getting wild Alaskan salmon into our own communities.”   

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent at High Country News. 

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