If genetically modified salmon escape from captivity, they could pose a threat to wild populations. And once out in the wild, their genes could likely never be fully contained, according to a recent ruling by a federal court. The decision deals a major setback to a company that wants to sell genetically modified salmon in the United States. Now, the company must go back and complete a more thorough environmental review of their plan to fully account for the dangers that escaped GMO salmon might pose.

In a fight stretching back years, environmental groups have long argued that the Food and Drug Administration conducted a hurried, incomplete investigation into the ramifications of raising thousands of genetically modified salmon. The judge agreed. Now the ruling has paused plans to begin raising and selling genetically engineered salmon in the U.S.

Too Soon for Genetically Modified Salmon

Back in 2018, the FDA gave Massachusetts-based AquaBounty the green light to raise genetically-modified salmon at its new aquaculture facility in Indiana. The company’s fish have genes inserted from two different species — Chinook salmon and ocean pout — that together allow them to grow to full size much faster than normal salmon do. AquaBounty had hoped to grow these modified salmon in land-based pens and start selling them to consumers this year. (Read more: GM Salmon Approved by FDA)

Though the company claims it’s taking steps to reduce the risk of salmon escapes, others aren’t so sure. The impacts of GMO salmon escapes aren’t fully known at the moment, meaning that even if they are unlikely, the resulting damage to wild populations could be large. Genetically modified salmon would compete with wild salmon for resources, and might interbreed with them, for example (Devlin et al. 2015).

The plan has also met resistance in Canada, where the gene-edited fish will be bred in a facility on Prince Edward Island’s Rollo Bay, off the coast of Nova Scotia, before being shipped to the U.S. Obviously, those fish will be much closer to ocean populations than ones in tanks in Indiana.

The November ruling from the U.S. District Court of Northern California argues the FDA failed to do its due diligence (Chhabria, 2020). The case hinges on the FDA’s assumption that avoiding environmental risks isn’t its responsibility. But the judge in the case disagreed, pointing out the FDA has a mandate to protect human health, and environmental harms often end up being hazardous to human health, too.

The FDA seems to have simply assumed that GMO salmon wouldn’t escape from their aquaculture enclosures. But that ignores the risks should such an escape happen, said U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria in his ruling.

“The FDA did not…meaningfully analyze what might happen to normal salmon in the event the engineered salmon did survive and establish themselves in the wild,” he wrote.

The FDA also failed to get input from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service when making its decision, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act (Chhabria, 2020).

Having the input of federal agencies responsible for our wildlife’s health is even more important in this case, considering the production of GMO salmon is only likely to grow in the future. As Chhabria points out, that means the risks will grow, too. And the FDA’s decision on AquaBounty may set a precedent for future decisions on the production of genetically modified creatures of many kinds. That means it’s even more important to establish proper guidelines now (Chhabria, 2020).

“Before starting the country down a road that could well lead to commercial production of genetically engineered fish on a large scale, the FDA should have developed a full understanding — and provided a full explanation — of the potential environmental consequences,” Chhabria wrote.

Unknown GMO Risks

Salmon
This salmon is not genetically modified, but scientists fear GMO salmon could potentially escape and pollute the wild salmon gene pool.

Few studies have been done on the potential impact of escaped GMO salmon, but those that do exist point out the need for more research before making any decisions. One study from 2015 notes that though there are no records yet of GMO salmon getting out of their containment pens, if such an escape did happen, it’s likely that the altered salmon could interbreed with wild fish (Devlin et al. 2015). That could irrevocably change the genetic makeup of wild salmon populations. Other dangers include that the escaped salmon could have a competitive advantage over wild salmon, out-competing them for food.

And another study points out that, though invasive species (which includes GMO fish) can be contained in some cases, they’re almost impossible to eradicate (Britton et al. 2010). Once escaped, in other words, GMO salmon and their questionable genes would be there to stay. The 2015 study also recommends studying each genetically-altered species on a case-by-case basis, given the uncertainties still surrounding the field — something yet to be done for AquaBounty’s salmon (Devlin et al. 2015).

The risks to wild salmon from their genetically modified counterparts are compounded by the fact that most species are already under threat from a combination of factors. Poorly managed fisheries have cut salmon numbers in much of the world, while dams have blocked the fish from spawning. Climate change poses another risk, as waters warm and ecosystems shift unpredictably. That’s why Vital Choice gets its salmon from ethical and sustainable fishing operations, nearly all in Alaska, which is widely considered to have the healthiest, best-managed wild fisheries.

The Wild-Caught Advantage

Environmental risks aside, GMO salmon are also farmed salmon. And we know that farmed salmon isn’t as healthy for us as their wild brethren. Farmed salmon has a number of drawbacks, including a poor balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

In recent years, many fish farms have begun cutting their feed with additives in order to reduce the amount of expensive, ocean-caught feeder fish they use. And someday, fish farms may even use genetically modified plants in their feed.

The result is that farmed salmon have much higher ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s (Britton et al. 2005). Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to our bodies’ well-being — they help support our brains, joints, eyesight, and more. Omega-6s are also necessary, but only in moderation. And studies show that when the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s gets too high, our health suffers (Simopoulos 2002). (Read more: Bad Diets Pass Obesity ‘Programming’ to Offspring.)

The best option, for both your health and that of the environment, is to choose wild-caught salmon over farmed. Fish from Alaska’s sustainably managed fisheries grow slowly and vigorously in pristine waters, and are chock-full of omega-3s, vitamin D, antioxidants, and other healthful nutrients.

And as long as we make sure to safeguard their health – and their precious genes - they’ll be there for a long time to come.

Sources:

Britton JR, Gozlan RE, Copp GH. Managing non-native fish in the environment. Fish and Fisheries. 2010;12(3):256-274. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2979.2010.00390.x

Britton JR, Gozlan Rodolphe E, Copp Gordon H. Lipid Composition and Contaminants in Farmed and Wild Salmon. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2005, 39, 22, 8622–8629. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es050898y

Chhabria, Vince. Order granting in part and denying in part plaintiffs motion for summary judgement; granting in part and denying in part defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgement. United States District Court Northern District of California. Case No. 16-cv-01574-VC https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/2020-10-05-ecf-285--order-granting-in-part-and-denying-msj_03835.pdf

Devlin RH, Sundström LF, Leggatt RA. Assessing Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences of Growth-Accelerated Genetically Engineered Fishes. BioScience. 2015;65(7):685-700. doi:10.1093/biosci/biv068

Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. 2002;56(8):365-379. doi:10.1016/s0753-3322(02)00253-6