Is GMO Necessarily Bad?

AquAdvantage salmon is genetically engineered to grow faster than traditional farm-raised Atlantic salmon by using a growth hormone from Chinook salmon and a sequence of DNA from ocean pout. Image via fda.gov

This is a guest post by Rip Cunningham, Recreational Fisheries Consultant. The views expressed in the post are the writer’s own. Genetically modified salmon is the first of its kind and has recently been the focus of much debate. For other points of view, read a post in Vox Populi by a Dartmouth Professor of Environmental Studies and a chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy. More of the debate can also be read on the New York Times’ Opinion Page.

This past week after an almost 20-year investigation, the FDA approved Aqua Bounty Technology’s application for genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon. Why it took twenty years is a product of the politics involved and had little or nothing to do with the safety or quality of the fish.

For some, the concept of GMO anything is what they disapprove of. For those, there is likely no explanation that makes any difference. For others, there is the question of safety of the product for consumption and questions about potential environmental impacts.

Like many other recreational fishermen, I thought that the advent of aqua cultured salmon would be the savior of Atlantic salmon, whose spawning stock numbers have been on the decline for many years. Little did we understand that at-sea pen raising of salmon would be one of the biggest detriments to the wild population. In the state of Maine, a population that is listed as endangered.

I became acquainted with and a supporter of Aqua Bounty from its inception. While I was interested in the biological aspects, I was most interested in the concept of inventory turn which could make the inland shore-based tank raising more profitable and therefore displace all the at-sea pen raising operations.

The real benefits go far beyond what I originally envisioned. First, Aqua Advantage salmon will all be raised in inland shore-based tanks. It will mean this product could be a certifiable organic cultured fish, if those controlling the organic certification process would re-think their stance on all genetically modified products. Currently, at-sea culture requires chemical pesticide treatment for controlling sea lice. It also requires a large amount of antibiotics. In some instances, this is used at a staggeringly high rate.

The inland tank-raised product will not have to be treated as the environment is highly controlled and cleaned with a microscopic filtering system.

The at-sea pen raised salmon have had a very high incidence of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA). This is highly contagious and has been transmitted to wild salmon. In Maine, the already severely depleted wild stocks cannot withstand a serious outbreak of this disease. There is no chance of that with inland tank-raised fish.

This does not even get to another serious problem, the complete degradation and destruction of the benthic habitat under the at-sea pens. The layering of fish wastes that contain antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals has a detrimental impact close to the pens and also on the surrounding areas. Studies have shown that even if the pen is moved, the habitat is very, very slow to recover.

There is also the issue of the constant low level of escapees from the at-sea pens diluting the genetic strains of the wild fish and potentially also spreading disease.

The bottom line is that aqua cultured fish is here to stay, but we have to do it in a way that is economically sustainable and environmentally compatible. At-sea pen raising of Atlantic salmon is not the answer. For this product, inland shore based tank aquaculture is an answer. Having a fast growing product such as AquAdvantage salmon will make the shore-based culture more successful and safer for the coastal and estuarine environments.

As for the quality of the product, a group of high end chefs did a blind cooking and taste test of this fish and found that AquAdvantage salmon won almost every time. It may not always be true, but with this product there is no real disadvantage.


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