Salmon populations on the U.S. East and West coasts have been devastated by dams, logging and bad forest management, overfishing, and industrial agriculture’s water demands. On the East Coast, Atlantic salmon — once inhabiting almost every river north of the Hudson — are now extinct in 84 percent of New England rivers (and in critical condition in the others).
Yet since salmon remains a popular and pervasive menu item, the seafood industry is taking extraordinary steps to maintain its availability for human consumption. Fish farms have proliferated to meet consumer demand — creating salmon with unhealthy fat levels, polluting the water around farms with chemicals, and spreading disease to wild salmon. And now a new danger looms: genetically engineered salmon.
In November 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an application by AquaBounty Technologies to allow genetically engineered seafood to be cultivated and sold to the public for the first time, without warning labels. The company’s GE salmon are created by splicing a growth-regulating gene from Pacific chinook salmon into Atlantic salmon, allowing the resulting “frankenfish” fish to grow to market weight in 16 months rather than three years.
These GE fish raise myriad conservation concerns. Some fish will inevitably escape their farms and mingle with endangered wild salmon — creating genetic problems in wild populations, outcompeting them for food, and affecting natural systems in other novel ways.
The FDA didn’t consult with wildlife experts before approving AquaBounty’s application, as the Endangered Species Act requires.
GE salmon would also adversely affect some American Indians, for whom wild salmon have historically played a critical cultural, religious and nutritional role; many tribes even hold recognized treaty rights to salmon harvests. If GE salmon weren’t allowed, Atlantic salmon might one day actually recover and flourish, allowing tribes to once again rely on this resource.
While the seafood industry argues that it is genetically engineering salmon just to meet public demand, there are many indicators that people would prefer sustainable food systems that don’t undermine the heath of wild animals.
DATA SUPPORTING SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD
Conservation and food-safety groups fear that the decision to allow AquaBouty's GE salmon into the marketplace could be the start of a dangerous trend of approving more genetically engineered seafood and other meat. So what can ethical eaters do to support a precautionary approach to protecting wild salmon and natural ecological systems?