Sometime in the next few years, an entirely new fish will appear on American plates. After several decades of biotech research and a final upstream push past the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month, the AquaBounty AquAdvantage salmon, a genetically engineered species of fish, will go into commercial production. While modified plants like corn and soy abound in the American diet, this will mark the first time in history that an engineered animal has been approved for human consumption. The new fish’s genetic code is comprised of components from three fish: base DNA from an Atlantic salmon; a growth gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon; and a promoter, a kind of “on” switch for genes, from a knobby-headed eel-shaped creature called an ocean pout.
The salmon’s pathway to the market will involve a similarly complex formulation. The first phase of AquAdvantage production will take place in Canada, on Prince Edward Island. There, the all-female eggs will be rendered sterile through a pressure treatment. They will then be flown to Panama, where they’ll be hatched, raised to harvestable size, slaughtered, and imported into the U.S. as the familiar orange-hued fillets that Americans have come to prefer above all other types of fish. Though AquaBounty hopes that the costs of this circuitous route to market could be offset by the savings incurred from the fish’s rapid growth (the company claims that AquAdvantage reaches maturity in about half the time as unmodified fish), the company is hoping to eventually gain permission to farm the fish here at home. “In the longer run,” AquaBounty’s co-founder, Elliot Entis, wrote me in an e-mail, “the real payoff will be when inland recirculating facilities are built in the U.S.”
As strange as the process will be for bringing the AquAdvantage to our tables, it is only the latest phase in a three-hundred-year-long project that has progressively disfigured the relationship between American salmon and American consumers. When colonists first arrived on the East Coast of the United States, in the seventeenth century, wild Atlantic salmon were present in commercially exploitable numbers in every major river system from Connecticut to Maine. Among the first things that settlers did was build small-scale dams, primarily for mill power, so that they might have flour in addition to fish. Dam by dam, Americans in the following centuries walled off upstream spawning grounds, and fish numbers dwindled to the point where most runs of Atlantic salmon qualify for endangered-species status. Populations of the five species of Pacific salmon in California, Oregon, and Washington were similarly degraded, most notably in the Columbia River basin, where some sixty hydroelectric dams were built between 1932 and the early nineteen-seventies.
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