Genetically modified or no, farmed salmon a risky proposition

 

Get ready, folks: A genetically modified salmon, AquAdvantage, may soon be approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in U.S. commercial fish farming. That is, assuming that an opposition bill that made it halfway through Congress last session doesn't derail the 15-year permitting process, and fierce opposition from environmental groups doesn’t convince the FDA to leave the process in limbo.

The news has got me thinking. How risky is it really, to farm genetically modified salmon that would grow faster, thus using fewer resources and creating less pollution than traditionally farmed fish?

After all, both GM salmon proponents and environmental advocates seem to align on aquaculture as a possible solution to an oceanic world that has become increasingly bereft of wild fish. Take this line, for example:

The depletion of wild stocks due to overfishing and failed management practices in the capture industry leave aquaculture as the only obvious alternative to meet the demand for seafood.

It sounds like it could have come verbatim from environmental journalist Paul Greenberg's book, Four Fish, which chronicled the decline of fish worldwide, and advocated for fish farms as one solution. In fact, the sentence comes from the website of AquaBounty Technologies, the company behind the engineered salmon in question.

If you happen to have come across writing on this topic in the envirosphere, you might think that AquAdvantage frankenfish, once approved by the FDA, were going to escape their cages and swim all over the ocean, polluting the genes of native stocks and destroying the livelihoods of the charismatically crusty, blue-collar workers that make up the Pacific salmon industry while also wreaking havoc on wild salmon runs.

To help ground truth some of these dire warnings, I looked for studies on farmed salmon. A number of researchers have examined the impacts to native fish from escapees of the non-modified farmed salmon industry, which at a worth of $7.2 billion is the second largest aquaculture industry in the world and accounts for 67 percent of the salmon sold worldwide.  The industry raises primarily Atlantic salmon, although some Pacific species are also raised.

In a 2005 paper in the journal BioScience, a group of scientists analyzed how escaped farmed fish affected the environments where they ended up. And boy, do they escape. In the North Atlantic, where the majority of salmon farming takes place, an estimated 2 million domesticated salmon escape yearly. And millions of fish have also slip out from farms off the West Coast, possibly to the detriment of the native salmon runs so highly prized by fisherman and conservationists. Atlantic salmon escapees have even been found in Alaskan rivers, one of the last places with healthy wild salmon runs.

These escapees do breed successfully with each other and occasionally with wild salmon, but Atlantic-Pacific salmon hybrids are commonly sterile. The biggest risk appears to be competitive -- like the invasive species they are, juvenile feral salmon in rivers with native runs can outgrow and outcompete native juveniles, limiting their access to food and pushing them out into lower quality habitat, according to research by invasion ecologist John Volpe, who has done extensive work on interactions between escaped and native salmon populations in British Columbia.

Farm escapees can also transmit diseases like sea lice to natives. Martin Krkosek, a scientist who studied sea lice's impact on populations in the Broughton Archipelago, above Vancouver Island, says sea lice from farms drove declines in wild salmon in the archipelago. The British Columbia ministry of agriculture, which has stood steadfastly behind fish farms, debates these claims, but Krkosek stands behind his data. Researchers also fear the spread of viruses like salmon anemia, which recently appeared on the Pacific coast. Viruses spread rapidly in the close quarters of fish farms, and can devastate wild populations.

But let's get back to the AquaBounty fish. Most scientists warning of the risks of aquaculture to native species have called for farmed fish to be grown in land-based operations, so escapees wouldn't make it to the native populations, and for a sterilization technique called "induced triploidy." And guess what: Unlike their non-GM farmed salmon counterparts, AquAdvantage fish (which are all female) are sterilized using this method, and are also grown in land-based operations, which regular fish farms say are too expensive. And AquaBounty recently got a $500,000 grant from the USDA to explore an even more fail-safe sterilization method.

From a 60,000-foot view, then, AquaBounty seems to be doing all of the things environmentalists should be calling on standard fish farms to do.

But there's still that pesky genetic modification aspect. The AquaBounty fish is supposed to grow from smolt to servable in half the time of an ordinary farmed fish thanks to two genes from other fish species: a Chinook one for faster, year round growth and an ocean pout (a sort of sea eel) gene, which doesn't express itself, but allows the Chinook one to work. It's hard to get over such overt meddling with our food’s genetic code; U.S. consumers (yours truly included) are squeamish about it, and, as others have noted, there's no government structure that adequately assesses the public's concerns about genetically modified foods. So while AquAdvantage salmon may be the most studied farmed fish [PDF] in the industry, proven safer on an allergenic and human health level than any other farmed fish in history, it still gets stuck with the ick factor of: "you put a gene from what, where?!"

And, of course, it is difficult to determine the precise environmental impacts of a modified fish getting out into the wild, however unlikely the event is to occur in the case of AquaBounty’s operation. Essentially, it all comes down to acceptance of risk. If we live in a world where consumers demand cheap, farmed salmon (and we do), and a company has come up with a way to do it cheaper and faster, is improved efficiency worth the very small risk that the modified salmon might escape and possible impact the environment?

From a risk perspective, the worries about AquAdvantage are speculative and seem somewhat hyperbolic, since they pertain to a possible altering of our world at some future date in a hypothetical situation where many redundant safeguards fail.

In contrast, the non-modified aquaculture industry is already altering our world, has no redundant safeguards, and therefore, from a conservation perspective, is already failing. In Norway, which pioneered the salmon farming industry in the 1960s, the number of escaped feral salmon in some rivers outnumber the natives, and in some rivers the percent of salmon that are escapees has reached 80 percent -- which doesn't seem to bode well for natives.

It's understandable that consumers and environmentalists are upset at our country's failure to create a holistic regulatory framework that addresses fears over genetically modified organisms' entry into our food supply and natural environments.

Yet seems like, at least right now, the ecological impacts of existing fish farms are the bigger fish in the proverbial sea.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News. She writes frequently about agriculture and the environment.

Fish image courtesy Flickr user Cheryl Q.

Salmon farm image courtesy Flickr user Sam Mudge

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...