GENETIC ENGINEERING: FrankenSalmon haven’t gone away. Just what has happened up to 2015?

 gmo-salmon January 2015

Canada’s Minister of the Environment approved the commercial production of genetically modified (GM) Atlantic salmon eggs in November 2013. However, the GM fish is not yet approved for human consumption – the Canadian and US governments could approved the GM fish for eating at any time. The company’s current plan is to produce the GM fish eggs in Prince Edward Island (PEI) and ship them to Panama for grow-out and processing.

The company – small US company called AquaBounty – claims the salmon grow to market-size twice as fast as other farmed salmon. The salmon are engineered with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and genetic material from ocean pout (an eel-like creature). If approved, it would be the first GE food animal in the world.

Background on the GM Salmon

What is the GM Salmon?

The U.S. company AquaBounty has genetically engineered (GE, also called genetically modified or
GM) Atlantic salmon. The company claims its “AquAdvantage” salmon grow to market-size twice as fast as other farmed salmon. That’s because the Atlantic salmon are engineered with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and genetic material from ocean pout (an eel-like creature).

AquaBounty wants to produce all the GE Atlantic salmon eggs on Prince Edward Island, ship them to Panama to grow out and then ship the processed fish to the US consumer market. This is only the first part of the company’s plan – the plan they are seeking approval for now – they say they want to grow the fish in North America, Chile and other countries, in the future.

The GM Salmon is from Canada

Prince Edward Island, Canada is now home to the world’s first GM fish-egg production factory. In November 2013, Environment Canada announced its decision to allow production of the GM fish eggs. The company has a research facility at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island which it will turn into a fish-egg factory if the U.S. and Panama also approve the fish.

No One Wants GM Fish

Will GM Salmon Be On Our Plate Soon?

January 2014: Environmental groups are taking the federal government to court for permitting manufacture of genetically modified salmon in Canada. Ecology Action Centre (NS) and Living Oceans Society (BC), represented by Ecojustice, assert that Canada’s approval of GM fish production is unlawful because it failed to assess whether genetically modified salmon could become invasive, potentially putting ecosystems and species such as wild salmon at risk. The Canadian government approval would permit egg production and even the grow-out of GM salmon at other facilities in Canada, provided criteria in the Minister of the Environment’s November 2013 notice are met.

January 2014: The GM salmon is very close to approval in the U.S. but a timeline for a final decision is not known in the U.S. or in Canada. In Canada, Health Canada refuses to tell the public if they are currently assessing the salmon for human consumption.

November 2013: The Canadian government (Environment Canada) gave the first-ever government approval for this GM fish when it permitted the production of the GM fish eggs.

In late 2010, the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the preliminary conclusion that the GE salmon is safe for to eat and does not pose a risk to the environment. But FDA meetings in September 2010 did not conclude with a recommendation to approve the salmon. Instead, the FDA’s own committee members voiced serious concerns about the quality of the data and the risks. In January 2013, the US government released its environmental assessment of the GE Atlantic salmon, a last step to approving the GE fish.

The First GM Food Animal in the World?

The GM fish was in a race with the GM pig called “Enviropig” to become the first genetically engineered animal in our food system but the campaign led by the Canadian Biotechnology stopped the GM pig in March 2012. The GM salmon would be the first GM food animal approved in the world.

Environmental Risks

Atlantic salmon are farmed in both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. The escape of farmed fish from either marine net pens or hatcheries is serious, reoccurring pollution that threatens species. For example, mature escaped Atlantic salmon have been recorded in streams in B.C..

To try to avoid a full review of these risks, AquaBounty is only seeking permission to raise the fish in a land-based facility in a “remote highland area” of Panama – even though they say they want to raise the fish in the U.S. and other countries. The company also says that all the fish will be sterile females, but admits they can only guarantee 95% of the salmon will be unable to reproduce.

Any risk of GM Atlantic salmon escaping into the wild is unacceptable, especially when Atlantic salmon are already in danger of disappearing.

Also, GM salmon could put even more pressure on marine ecosystems. The fast-growing GM salmon could consume up to five times more food than other farmed salmon – because salmon are carnivorous they actually eat large amounts of wild-harvested fish like anchovies and sardines, caught just to feed them.

Health Risks and Bad Science

Critics have long warned that the process of genetic engineering itself could possibly result in increased allergenicity and AquaBounty’s own data point to this potential in their GM salmon.

Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union US, says, “The FDA is relying on woefully inadequate data. There is sloppy science, small sample sizes, and questionable practices.” For example, the company used insensitive tests to try and measure the levels of growth hormone in the GM salmon and the levels of IGF-1, a hormone linked to a number of cancers.


Media Backgrounder, April 10, 2013: Genetically Modified (GM) Atlantic Salmon in PEI

“Biotech Gets Fishy with GE Salmon” Common Ground Magazine, Lucy Sharratt, CBAN, October 2010.

Watch the Presentation: “Is the GM Salmon Safe?”

“Is the GM Salmon Safe?: A look at the data on the health and environment risks” Featuring Michael Hansen, Ph.D., Consumers Union, US. International expert on the risk assessment of genetically modified organisms. Filmed May 13, 2013 in Charlottetown PEI.

  1. Watch the Video:
  2. View the Slides: (the slides in the video cannot be seen) Click here to download the accompanying PowerPoint slides.

What do we know about the GM salmon, proposed to come from PEI? A biologist and ecologist, Michael Hansen Ph.D. is a Senior Scientist at Consumers Union in the US. He also represents Consumers International, a federation of more than 250 organizations in 110 countries, on issues related to genetic engineering. Dr. Hansen was appointed as an international expert for two different FAO/WHO Joint Expert Consultations: Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Genetically Modified Animals, including Fish (2003) and Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Recombinant DNA Animals (2004).

More Information

Canadian regulation: Canadian regulators are not prepared to evaluate GE fish properly. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) abandoned its work to develop regulations specific to GE fish. Because DFO could not figure out how to regulate GE fish (Transgenic Aquatic Organisms), they have passed the task to Environment Canada under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Health Canada will evaluate the safety of GE fish for human consumption under the existing Novel Foods regulations. Health Canada is still developing particular guidelines for evaluating the safety of GM animals under these existing regulations.

Status of Wild Atlantic Salmon

Populations of wild Atlantic Salmon have declined for years, with numbers of Atlantic salmon in Canada dropping from approximately 18 million in 1975 to 625,000 in 2008, according to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). While Atlantic salmon can be found in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, Iceland Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, France, Spain, and the United States, many traditional salmon runs are now reduced or extinct. In 2009, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed all populations of wild Atlantic salmon as a “High Priority Candidate” in danger of disappearing from Canada. In years prior to this, Lake Ontario populations were listed as “Extirpated” and Inner Bay of Fundy (iBoF) populations as “Endangered”. Commercial fisheries for wild Atlantic salmon were closed in 1985. Recreational fisheries, First Nations and Labrador Resident fisheries of large Atlantic salmon are allowed but restricted in Canada.

Atlantic salmon are farmed in Atlantic Canada but also in the Pacific Ocean, primarily in Chile and along the West Coast of Canada and the U.S..

Background on the company AquaBounty

In 2004, AquaBounty Farms was renamed as AquaBounty Technologies Inc. Corporate Headquarters are based in Waltham, Massachusetts, while the AquaBounty Pacific subsidiary is located in San Diego, California. AquaBounty has a Canadian subsidiary based in St John’s, Newfoundland. AquaBounty maintains a research and development facility in Bay Fortune, Prince Edward Island.

The original research conducted on antifreeze (promoter) proteins was patented by two University professors, Dr. Garth Fletcher from Memorial University Newfoundland and Dr. Choy Hew of the University of Toronto, as their “invention”. Dr. Fletcher became Co-Founder, Director, and Corporate Vice President of A/F Protein Inc., and President of A/F Protein Canada Inc – he is still Professor Emeritus at the Ocean Sciences Centre of Memorial University of Newfoundland.

In January 2010, the federal government granted public funds to AquaBounty for research that can be applied to their GE salmon. The company was given $2.9 million from the Atlantic Innovation Fund to “improve the culture of reproductively sterile Atlantic salmon” with the objective of “the safe commercial launch of triploid salmon with Atlantic Canada identified as the source for associated commercial benefits, and worldwide distribution of the product.


Press Release, March 10, 2014: GM Fish Company Seeks Food Safety Approval in Canada

December 2013: The largest producer of farmed salmon, Marine Harvest has stated their position against the GM salmon: “Salmon is established as a healthy, safe and tasty product. A possible introduction of GM salmon is controversial and might weaken the salmon brand. Marine Harvest does not support the introduction of GM salmon. If the GM salmon is to be approved for consumption, Marine Harvest asks for it to be specifically labelled,”- Kristine Gramstad, Global Director Communications, Marine Harvest.

November 2013: CBAN sent letters to the Minister of Environment and the Minister of Health to request an answer to the question: Is Environment Canada and/or Health Canada reviewing a GE fish for approval? Here is the response from Health Canada.

October 2013: CBAN has submitted a “petition” (a detailed series of questions that require departmental response) to the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development in the Office of the Auditor General, asking questions about the regulation of the GM fish. This petition was prepared with the assistance of Ecojustice, with particular thanks to Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic intern, Madeleine Hayes. Government departments are expected to respond by January 2014. Click here to read the document submitted to the Auditor General.

December 16, 2011: ISA virus confirmed in AquaBounty’s genetically-engineered salmon: A 2009 memo from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) entered into evidence at Canada’s federal Cohen Inquiry into the collapse of Fraser River sockeye Thursday reveals that salmon at the AquaBounty facility in Price Edward Island have tested positive for the Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA) virus. Click here to watch Catherine Stewart of Living Oceans Society talk about what this means.

House of Commons Motion: October 2011 – Mr. Donnelly (New Westminster—Coquitlam) — That, in the opinion of the House, the government should immediately: (a) provide greater regulatory clarity by identifying which government departments are responsible for the regulation of genetically modified salmon and other transgenic aquatic organisms; (b) prevent the introduction into the Canadian food system of genetically modified salmon destined for human consumption until further scientific studies are concluded by the relevant departments to determine the impact of genetically modified salmon on human health and on the health of marine species, ecosystems and habitats; and (c) direct the departments responsible for the regulation of genetically modified salmon to establish a practice of notifying the Canadian public of all requests and approvals and of any information and findings regarding genetically modified salmon and salmon eggs.

October 11, 2011 – Press Release : U.S. Rubber-Stamp of GM Fish Imminent? U.S. approval would trigger corporate plans to produce genetically modified salmon eggs in Canada, but Environment Canada remains silent

January 15, 2011: PEI groups met with Premier Ghiz and the PEI Minister of the Environment and secured a pledge that the Premier will seek information from Environment Canada. Environment Canada is currently refusing to disclose any information about a possible risk assessment to allow the production of GE salmon eggs on PEI. Read the story: PEI groups meet with Premier and secure pledge on GE fish.

December 6, 2010 Press Release: Groups Oppose Genetically Engineered Salmon: Demand Immediate Disclosure from Environment Canada

Sixty fisheries and oceans conservation, environmental and social justice groups revealed today that Environment Canada refuses to confirm or deny if the department has already started a secret 120-day risk assessment to approve genetically engineered (GE, also called genetically modified or GM) salmon egg production on Prince Edward Island. The groups today also released a joint statement of “categorical objection” to the raising of GE fish and fish eggs. Click here to see the statement opposing GE fish and the list of 60 groups signed so far.

November 22, 2010: Press release: PEI Groups request Premier Ghiz to press Environment Canada for disclosure on GE Salmon

Letter from Groups to PEI Premier

October 27, 2010: Newly Disclosed Government Documents Conclude GE Salmon Pose A Critical Threat To Marine Environments – Expert fisheries agencies prohibit growing engineered salmon in open-water net pens under the Endangered Species Act.

September 21, 2010 – Press Statement: Groups in the US and Canada urge the FDA to heed yesterday’s warnings by scientists regarding the safety of genetically engineered salmon and reject company’s request for approval — Yesterday the FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee finished two days of public hearings in Maryland on the safety of genetically engineered (GE) salmon: “The committee could not avoid pointing to serious problems with the science. The FDA cannot approve the GE salmon after the committee has raised so many questions about its safety,” said Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. Many committee members raised serious concerns about the safety of the GE salmon and questions about the quality of the data used by the FDA to come to its initial conclusion that the GE fish is safe. The FDA will now consider the concerns raised by the committee before making a final decision to approve or reject the GE fish, or call for more studies. The FDA has agreed to a public comment period on an environmental assessment.

September 20, 2010 – Press Release: Critics slam “sloppy science” on GE Fish at FDA hearings: FDA overlooked evidence of allergy potential and accepted deficient data say groups

September 16, 2010 – Press Release: PEI Groups Denounce Plans for Local GE Salmon Production: PEI representative to attend US hearings on GE fish safety

September 8, 2010 – Press Release:As U.S. Decision on GE Fish Nears Final Stage, Company Reveals Plan to Produce GE Salmon Eggs in Canada

September 3, 2010: FDA releases documents for the first time prior to public meetings September 19-21:

August 27, 2010 – Joint Press Statement: Coalition Demands FDA Deny Approval of Controversial GE Fish: FDA Considers Approval of GE Salmon–the First GE Food Animal–Yet Fails to Inform the Public of Environmental and Economic Risks.

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