Pandora’s Fish


By Elena Day

The Food and Drug Administration is poised to approve genetically engineered salmon. Ninety-one percent of U.S. consumers oppose the idea of introducing GE meat into the food supply.

I like salmon. I like it grilled, smoked, as mousse, as lox, and it’s especially yummy with dill sauce. I don’t want to eat genetically engineered (GE) salmon, and my preference is wild caught.

Most of the salmon the US consumer eats today is farmed. This has been the case since the collapse of Atlantic salmon fisheries several decades ago due to habitat destruction and overfishing. Salmon farming has become widespread in the last 20 years. Numerous countries including Canada, Norway, Chile, Ireland, the UK, Russia and Tasmania farm salmon. Strains of Atlantic salmon chosen for more voracious appetites and thereby quicker growth are raised for two years in densely packed pens near ocean shores and fed fish meal and fish oil. (It takes three pounds of ground-up wild caught menhaden, mackerel, sardines and/or anchovies to produce one pound of salmon.) In 2009, farmed salmon were provided with 573,000 tons of fishmeal and 409,000 of fish oil. (I believe we have cause to be concerned about our own Virginia menhaden fishery.)

Fishmeal is often contaminated with PCB’s and other toxic chemicals. Excrement abounds and antibiotics are used to counter infections that are more likely to infect fish in close quarters. Fifteen to 20 percent of fishmeal is uneaten and regularly flushed from the pens. A lot of ground-up fish is wasted. Up to 10,000 tons is estimated to be wasted annually by Canadian farms. Mass escapes, up to 3 million annually of farmed salmon, are common during storms. These escapees compete for food stocks, spread disease and breed with wild salmon, diluting the latter’s gene pool and thereby their adaptability to specific ocean/river (spawning) habitats. Clearly the farmed salmon industry is unsustainable.

Currently, even more clouds are gathering for salmon lovers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is poised to approve genetically engineered salmon. This would be the first GE (also called transgenic) animal to be introduced into the U.S. food supply.

GE salmon are Atlantic salmon that have been inserted with a gene from a Pacific salmon and another from an ocean pout (eel). These genes promote two to four times faster growth because GE’s will eat five times as much. GE salmon reach marketable size in 18 months.

GE salmon is a product of AquaBounty, a Canadian company that produces the eggs in a secret facility on Prince Edward Island and plans to farm the salmon in Panama. (Huh? I thought salmon liked cooler water.)

The FDA is reviewing the application for GE salmon as a veterinary “drug.” Review as a veterinary drug allows for a high level of secrecy and minimal public scrutiny because company data and research are “trade secrets.” The FDA is not doing its own testing and instead relies on information provided by AquaBounty. It even accepted an AquaBounty study of six GE salmon that determined there is no potential for allergic response in humans.

Diverse organizations and government agencies have expressed concerns regarding GE salmon. Purdue University scientists, the National Academy of Sciences, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration feel that the environmental impact studies are not thorough and GE salmon could damage native populations to near extinction. AquaBounty claims their fish cannot survive in the wild and all are female and sterile. However, only 95 percent can be guaranteed sterile and farmed fish are known to escape.

To date, 30 Representatives and 14 Senators have written to the Obama Administration concerning FDA approval. Over 200 grocers, restaurants and seafood distributors have pledged to neither purchase or sell GE salmon. More than 400,000 comments have been submitted to the FDA, and the deadline for comments has been extended to April 26, 2013.

Ninety-one percent of U.S. consumers oppose the idea of introducing GE meat into the food supply. There is also is the question of labeling. Our food industry is opposed to labeling in general, so we can expect that if GE salmon is approved we won’t know we are eating it.

I contend that we need better salmon, not cheaper salmon, which AquaBounty thinks it can provide. Rather than the millions spent to develop GE salmon, wouldn’t wild-caught salmon habitat restoration and protection make more sense? Wild-caught are not only food for us. Fish and mammals depend on them as well. Coastal fishing communities might also be revitalized.

Don’t worry if you chose to eat less salmon about those healthful omega three fatty acids. Apparently walnuts, flaxseed, pasture-raised beef and even cloves are just as or even slightly more abundant in omega three’s.

GE “Enviropig” is waiting for us around the corner if GE salmon is approved. You might want to send in comments to the FDA regarding the GE’s, or Frankenfish, as many call them. Send comments electronically to or write to Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), FDA, 5030 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, Maryland 20850.