By Erin Hitchcock —
Though hundreds of thousands of Sockeye salmon are anticipated to reach the spawning grounds in the Quesnel rivershed this fall, the future of this mighty fish is on the minds of many.
Fish farms, sea lice, over fishing, habitat destruction, climate change, and ocean acidification are some of the concerns expressed among conservation groups that are working to ensure their long-term survival.
But there is also a lesser-discussed issue—genetically modified (GM) salmon that could pose an additional threat in the future.
AquaBounty has created GM Atlantic salmon eggs capable of producing salmon that can grow at twice the rate of normal salmon and contain spliced genes from Chinook and the eel-like pout.
The company intends to send the eggs to Panama for grow-out and sell the grown fish as food for humans. If everything goes according to plan, says a CBC article from 2014, these fish will be sold to countries around the world, including the US, Canada, Argentina, Chile, and China. Once these fish make it to the grocery store shelves here, you can bet they won’t be labelled as genetically modified, as no other GM foods are.
According to a 2010 draft environmental assessment from the US Food and Drug Administration, these fish and their eggs aren’t a significant risk to the environment because they are 98.9 per cent sterile, all-female, and confined to secure, inland facilities to prevent accidental escapement. Even wasted fish would be incinerated or buried under layers of lime. The company also claims that even if they were to escape into the wild, they likely wouldn’t survive.
However, a number of environmental groups aren’t so sure, believing there is a potential this new species could negatively affect wild salmon and other aquatic life, should something go wrong.
It’s that uncertainty that has environmental groups such as the Living Oceans Society and Ecology Action Centre raising the alarm, said Ecojustice, which is helping the groups take the company and Canada to court.
They claim Environment Canada was wrong to approve the company’s application in 2013 to grow the GM salmon eggs in its Prince Edward Island hatchery and that it failed to obtain and assess all of the information legally required to allow the company to grow the eggs, including testing to show whether the GM salmon could become invasive. The matter is still before the courts.
According to the FDA environmental assessment noted above, characterizing the AquaAdvantage salmon as being sterile is “potentially misleading.”
“Sterility has not been explicitly verified in these fish and up to five per cent of the eggs sold for grow-out may be non-triploid and still within release specifications,” the document states. It also says testing results in egg destruction, so it’s impossible to ensure 100 per cent sterility in eggs sold for grow-out.
If you think 95 or even 98.9 per cent is a small window for error, consider how many fish could be produced on a commercial scale.
Hypothetically, if AquaBounty were to grow and transport 10 million of them, even with a 99 per cent sterility rate, that remaining one per cent amounts to 100,000 fertile fish.
With this game of Russian roulette, there is no telling if, when, where, or how many fertile GM salmon will escape, but the trigger will be pushed many, many times. And there is no telling how many other companies will follow in Aquabounty’s footsteps, once that company has laid a path for easier, speedier approvals.
Even with all of the aforementioned safeguards, there is still a risk these GM salmon could one day accidentally – or even intentionally – find their way into the wild.
One only has to look in our backyards to see such an example, as the invasive Smallmouth bass has infested local waterways, with the potential to reach the Fraser River, due to someone thinking it was a bright idea to put it in the Beaver Creek system.
Locally, the Sockeye salmon will swim about 620 kilometres to their spawning grounds in Horsefly to ensure their species’ survival. While they face many other, possibly more immediate, threats, this one should not go unnoticed as awareness and action need to begin now before irreversible damage is done.
We, as the human race, must take the time to appreciate nature’s wildness, agility, strength, and beauty while recognizing we hold its undeniable vulnerability and fragility in our hands. We depend on it too, and cannot gamble away the future of life on Earth any longer.
To learn more, including ways to take action, visit www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Fish and www.foodandwaterwatch.org/factsheet/below-the-surface.
Erin Hitchcock is a stay-at-home mom, journalist, anti-GMO advocate, and local organizer for March Against Monsanto. If you have any comments, column suggestions, or questions for her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.