Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Genetically Engineered Salmon

Kayla Abe, CUESA Staff
January 22, 2016

Stories of the San Francisco Bay in the Gold Rush-era read like an aquatic fairytale: it is said that one could cross its waters walking on salmon. Such a bountiful bay is a nostalgic notion now that wild salmon populations are threatened. Consequently, salmon fishing here is strongly regulated, and prices for wild-caught salmon are high.

As the world’s cravings for salmon continue to rise, fish farming—also known as aquaculture—is increasingly filling the demand. Globally, farmed salmon accounts for about 70% of the market.

Enter the AquAdvantage salmon, a genetically modified Atlantic salmon designed to grow at twice the rate of regular salmon. The AquAdvantage was approved in November 2015 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), making it the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption in the US. No labeling is required.

At CUESA’s panel discussion entitled “Genetically Engineered Salmon: What’s Next?” on January 13, experts in the field took a deep dive to examine the implications of genetically engineered (GE) seafood on the salmon industry, our bodies, and the environment.

The Dish on GE Salmon

A product of AquaBounty Technologies, the AquAdvantage salmon is hyperbolically marketed as “The World’s Most Sustainable Salmon.” Its defining feature is its ability to grow at twice the speed of its natural counterparts, expediting the fish-farm-to-table timeline. A growth hormone regulating gene in the GE salmon enables it to grow year round, unlike wild salmon, which only grows in spring and summer. To fuel this year-round growth, the AquAdvantage consumes feed at nearly twice the annual rate of the average Atlantic salmon, but, according to AquaBounty, the fish converts feed to meat more efficiently than its non-engineered counterparts.

Fish Escapes: A Slippery Slope

For now, AquAdvantage will be raised entirely on land in an enclosed system, minimizing the chance of escape. In addition, AquaBounty promises to produce only sterile, female salmon, so that if the engineered salmon escape they will be unable to breed with wild populations. However, salmon have the capacity to change sex under stress, leaving no way to absolutely safeguard against the AquAdvantage salmon passing on their modified genes.

Escape—whether accidental or facilitated—is not out of the question, and the potential impacts on wild populations of salmon are unknown. The AquAdvantage salmon’s demanding diet could make it an aggressive competitor for food resources in open waters.

For Adam Keats, Senior Attorney for Center for Food Safety, one of the speakers in CUESA’s discussion, the potential risks outweigh the benefits. “We’re talking about the North Atlantic salmon…one of the most endangered species in the country,” stated Keats. “There is a very good argument to be made that the release of genetically engineered salmon would be catastrophic to that species.” Center for Food Safety is in the process of filing a lawsuit to block the AquAdvantage approval.

Clear for Consumption?

The AquAdvantage salmon was approved under the FDA’s New Animal Drug Application, classifying the salmon itself as a “drug intended for use in animals other than man,” rather than as a food item. Center for Food Safety’s lawsuit is based partially on this illogical classification.

The FDA has deemed the AquAdvantage safe to eat, and as far as straight nutrition facts, it is “considered to be the same,” according to panelist Peter Bridson, founder of Seagreen Research. “The nutritional profile of farmed salmon basically depends on what you feed it,” he said, and the fish’s fat and omega-3 content is thus controlled by the farm.

However, according to the Center for Food Safety, the health implications of consuming genetically engineered fish are unknown. For example, concerns have been raised about whether the fish contain higher levels of allergens than other Atlantic salmon. Testing showed this not to be the case, but the sample size was small. Without a labeling requirement, consumers will be unable to choose for themselves.

The Future of GE Animals

With numerous other genetically engineered animals in the application pipeline, the AquAdvantage approval marks a turning point in the food system and sets an example both at home and abroad. “We have probably the weakest [GE animal] approval process possible, and yet, we’re the gold standard,” said Keats. “Other countries are potentially going to base their decisions on what is objectively a very weak approval standard.”

Shifting the (Sea)food System

While it is easy to get caught up in the details of such a high-stakes ruling, Bridson asked us to step back and examine the big picture: is GE salmon necessary? “Are we producing [GE salmon] because we as a society genuinely need it to produce the protein we need to feed the world?” he asked. “Or is it simply a commercial application of a relatively new technology that has been developed and is now being commercialized? I think the reality is that it’s very much the latter.”

The seafood supply problems we are grappling with are byproducts of consumer demand that focuses on just a handful of species. Rather than resorting to industrialized GE salmon, consumers can influence supply chains from the demand side. “Why make GE salmon when there are so many other delicious seafood options?” reflected panelist Maggie Ostdahl, Sustainable Initiatives Manager of Aquarium of the Bay.  

“We all really do make a difference with what we eat,” added panelist Hans Haveman, fisherman and owner of H and H Fresh Fish. H and H offers an array of locally caught seafood options and provides recipes and suggestions for how to enjoy them.

Every purchase we make is political. Here are a few suggestions for how you can use your buying power to support sustainable seafood:

Eat local and wild. If you choose salmon, look for wild caught fish from the US, and ideally local. Consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list to identify the best choices and which fish to avoid at the seafood counter, or use their Seafood Watch app for on-the-go information. When dining out, support these Bay Area restaurants that avoid red-listed seafood items.

Understand salmon seasons. Local, wild-caught salmon is only available part of the year, typically during spring and summer (regulations change annually). Frozen salmon can also be a sustainable choice, and frozen-at-sea methods maximize freshness.

Use caution when buying farmed fish. Not all farmed fish is created equal. While most farmed salmon is destructive to wild species and ocean ecosystems, aquaculture has been practiced for thousands of years and can be a sustainable option, especially with herbivorous fish like tilapia. Even some salmon aquaculture systems are considered sustainable. Check the Seafood Watch list for expert guidance on selecting farmed fish. The GE salmon is not expected to hit the markets any time soon. For those who want to be sure to avoid it, steer clear of any farmed salmon from Panama.

Support local fishermen. Fishermen rely on you, their local consumer base, to support their trade. While their prices may be higher than those at your average supermarket, the price tag reflects the true cost of maintaining a responsible fishing operation.

Expand your seafood repertoire. Despite the vast pool of aquatic options to choose from, our consumption patterns skew towards a select few, namely salmon, tuna, and shrimp. “Sustainable seafood is about more than just a couple poster children species,” said Ostdahl. Lesser-known fish can not only be unexpectedly tasty; they are also often less expensive.

Shifting our food culture is no small task. However, our collective impact ultimately comes down to simple everyday consumption choices. We can all make a commitment to broadening our seafood palate for the sake of the environment, especially when, as Ostdahl says, “there are literally so many other fish and invertebrates in the sea.”

Listen to the full talk (MP3)>

Find local, sustainably caught salmon and a range of other tasty seafood options at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays at H & H Fresh Fish and Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoke.


Photo courtesy of the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region.

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