A genetically engineered salmon that grows twice as fast as unaltered fish could find its way into local markets and restaurants if the Food and Drug Administration gives the creature federal approval—an action that food-safety watchdog groups suspect may be imminent.

The fish, designed by the Massachusetts biotech firm AquaBounty Technologies, is an Atlantic salmon enhanced with a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene promoter from an ocean fish called a pout.

Creators of the state-of-the-art salmon, trademarked as AquAdvantage and sardonically nicknamed by its many critics “the Frankenfish,” tout it as a sustainable and healthy seafood choice which could satisfy consumer demand while diverting fishing pressure from badly depleted wild stocks. In a report released in September 2010, the FDA concluded that commercial production and consumption of AquAdvantage salmon would not likely have negative environmental or human health consequences.

But many opponents of genetically engineered foods believe too many uncertainties remain about long-term impacts of this new species to merit approval of AquaBounty’s product as a human food. Environmentalists warn that the salmon could escape from their captive breeding sites, compete with wild salmon for food and mates, and interfere with natural spawning activity. 

“[AquaBounty is] using this idea that it’s in closed containment so it won’t get out,” said Casson Trenor, the senior markets campaigner with Greenpeace in San Francisco. “The thing is there’s no guarantee it will stay this way. Aquaculture facilities have escapes.”

Already, its creators have taken extreme caution in handling AquAdvantage salmon. The fish, which was designed in the 1990s, has only been grown to adulthood in Panama, where any escaped salmon would quickly succumb to the fatally warm tropical ocean waters. Siobhan DeLancey, an FDA spokeswoman, assured Metro in an email that her agency is not considering any commercial production outside of Panama.

She noted, however, that this could change if growers apply to produce the fish elsewhere—which AquaBounty is clearly counting on. Its website states that AquAdvantage salmon “are designed for on-shore facilities that can be built closer to consumers to reduce the need for energy-intensive shipping and transportation.” The website also says, “The introduction of land-based salmon farms in the United States would spur investment into this industry in our country.”

AquaBounty has designed its fish such that “AquAdvantage salmon eggs only become sterile females,” according to AquaBounty’s CEO, Dr. Ronald Stotish, who corresponded with Metro via email. These salmon will be triploids, or animals bearing three complete sets of chromosomes per cell. AquaBounty claims this sterility safeguard will eliminate the risk of genetically modified genes creeping into wild salmon populations.

But test batches of eggs hatched by AquaBounty rendered as many as one fertile offspring—a normal diploid fish with two sets of chromosomes to each cell—per 100 eggs, and AquaBounty’s permit application, now under review, allows for up to 5 percent of their salmon’s eggs to become fertile diploid offspring.

Researchers at Purdue University and at the University of Stirling, Scotland, have described several mechanisms that could occur in wild fish populations if fertile genetically engineered salmon escape. In their worst-case hypothetical scenarios, extinction results.


In its 172-page report, the FDA recognized an “extremely small” risk of AquAdvantage salmon escaping and establishing themselves as a manmade invasive species. This would require “escape (or intentional malicious release) of a large number of reproductively competent broodstock from the [Prince Edward Island] egg production facility.” High-security physical barriers make such an event unlikely, the report says.

Even if no genetically engineered fish ever escapes, says state Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), the mere presence of farmed salmon meat harms wild salmon by hamstringing efforts to preserve the streams in which the wild fish spawn. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) has publicly expressed the same concern. Huffman recently introduced Assembly Bill 88—legislation that, if passed into law, would require any genetically modified salmon sold in California be labeled as such. Sen. Begich has introduced a similar bill that would require labeling of genetically engineered fish nationwide.

AquaBounty’s representatives have balked at the idea. In an email, Stotish said his company favors existing federal laws that require genetically engineered foods to be clearly labeled only if the product is “compositionally different.”

“Because fish grown from AquAdvantage salmon eggs are exactly the same as any other North Atlantic salmon, there is no legal authority to label the fish,” Stotish says.

Indeed, the FDA stated in its September report that AquAdvantage salmon flesh is nutritionally no different than wild salmon meat. Diploid specimens—which are expected to enter the market in very small numbers—were not extensively studied, however, and the FDA could not rule out allergenicity.

AquaBounty itself has directed or overseen all research conducted on AquAdvantage salmon and provided the results to the FDA, which based its report on the data. Marianne Cufone of the consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch, says the testing “was very closed-door” and that the “information provided to the public has been woefully inadequate.”

At the Center for Food Safety, regulatory policy analyst Colin O’Neil notes that AquaBounty’s “application was lying on the FDA’s desk for 10 years, and then the public received only 10 days in September to look at the information.”

Crashed Fisheries
The open-ocean salmon-farming industries of British Columbia, eastern Canada and northern European nations have already devastated—and even destroyed—many wild populations of salmon, according to scientists in many nations.

Though many consumers might opt against purchasing the product if they are provided with the labeling information, local chef Jesse Cool believes many others will eat it up.

“Unfortunately, most of the country won’t care,” said Cool, who owns three South Bay restaurants, including Flea Street Caf in Menlo Park. “I see it all the time, the four things people can’t live without: Strawberries, tomatoes, salmon and beef. With these, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

Cool, who doesn’t serve farmed salmon, believes that Americans’ increasing reliance on genetically modified foods, farmed fish and the year-round availability of previously seasonal products—like salmon—is distancing them from the Earth.

“People are forgetting all connection to the biosystem, other species and diversity,” she said. “They are completely disconnected from nature and their food, and that’s a disaster.”

Huffman’s Assembly Bill 88 is now undergoing legislative review. In all, 14 elected officials in California and several dozen House representatives and senators have spoken out against AquaBounty’s fish. The public may have final power in approving or rejecting food products via the money they spend as consumers. Such a selective process cannot function, however, if buyers don’t know what they’re buying—and AquaBounty Technologies hopes to keep it that way.