It’s been almost a month since the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of genetically modified salmon in the United States.
What they didn’t (and can’t) approve is the legality of raising so-called Frankenfish on U.S. soil. That is up to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and they don’t seem eager to take up the decision. Right now, the fish can only be grown in land-based tanks in Panama.
What makes this engineered fish different is that it’s a traditional farmed species — Atlantic salmon — with a couple of genetic splices to include a size-knows-no-bounds gene from the king (or chinook) salmon and a cold-water-growth-promoter gene from the eel-like ocean pout. That’s a powerful combination. It means that the fish will grow at a fast rate year-round, as the ocean pout gene is what prevents the salmon’s natural growth inhibitor from triggering during colder months.
Assuming all goes as planned and the fish are only ever bred in captivity (AquaBounty promises all of their product will be sterile females), then the only harm this fish can do is the unknown effect of this gene manipulation on the consumer of the end product and the possibly deleterious effects on the market for non-GMO salmon. Because there is no requirement to label GMO salmon as such, producers of wild and farmed salmon worry that consumers will avoid salmon altogether in order to avoid Frankenfish.
Some proponents (or at least non-opponents) are hanging their hats on the fact that the genetic manipulation of Atlantic salmon to enable it to grow at twice the normal rate allows these fish to be raised in tanks as opposed to open net pens, where salmon production creates dead zones of ocean bottom.
While I would love to see finfish farming technology take us beyond a world of dead zones, anemia, sea lice and any other insidious byproduct of ocean finfish aquaculture, the “advancement” still makes me wonder why we need this manipulated salmon.
Nina Fedoroff’s op-ed for the New York Times was supposed to be reassuring but didn't do much to put me at ease. She talks about the ecological advantage of these tank-raised fish living in recirculated water. I have a hard time not envisioning the recirculated air on long flights that almost always results in a hacking cough.
She also promotes the joys of finally eating salmon guilt-free because “wild salmon populations have long been in deep trouble because of overfishing.” Yes, some. But wild salmon is far from the verge of extinction.
Alaska has had back to back epic years of salmon runs. The state’s cold storage facilities are absolutely bursting with delicious, healthy and healthful wild salmon in a vast range of product forms. Well-managed wild salmon is the only guilt-free salmon. Shouldn’t we be focusing our energy on sustaining and rebuilding wild runs of salmon? Those efforts would create more jobs, more food and a cleaner environment. And yet, someone feels compelled instead to bring this newfangled overseas-tank-raised substitute to market — and faster.
It reminds me of that joke from Annie Hall about the two old folks at a restaurant. One complains that the food is just terrible and the other says, “Yeah, I know. And such small portions!” Well one thing is sure, the king-size Frankenfish will not come in small portions. The rest of its story is yet to be determined.