Stop the Experiment: Transgenic Salmon Could Be in Our Waters Before We Know It
by Jo Dufay
Published on Friday, March 16, 2001 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Genetically modified fish present poorly understood but potentially devastating risks to the environment and the livelihoods of fishermen. Their development should be halted while society assesses whether the possible benefits outweigh the risks.
The recent announcement that up to 100,000 farmed salmon had escaped near the Bay of Fundy slipped by with surprisingly little comment. Undoubtedly, this release will threaten North America's remaining wild stock of Atlantic salmon, which has declined by about 65 per cent since the early '80s and now numbers around 250,000. Farm-bred salmon tend to be larger, out-competing their wild counterparts for both food and mates. And things could get worse.
Now under development, fish may be the first genetically modified animal species for which commercial approval is sought in Canada. Foreign genetic material has been inserted into Atlantic, coho and chinook salmon, rainbow trout and tilapia to increase their size, growth rates and resistance to cold temperatures. These traits may appear economically attractive in the short term, but could constitute a grave danger both to the environment and to wild fish populations.
The Royal Society of Canada -- a federally appointed, independent scientific body -- recently recommended "a moratorium on the rearing of GM fish in aquatic facilities." The American Society of Ichthyologists also strongly favours a moratorium on GM salmon. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has responded with equivocation and delay.
The risks of GM fish to the environment are not fully understood, and this lack of predictive science is in itself a problem. At this point, there are three main areas of concern. First of all, because they grow so quickly, GM fish are voracious feeders. They are likely to out-compete native stocks and pose a risk to the aquatic environment with their massive food demands. Secondly, most -- but not all -- GM fish will be sterile. This is industry's attempt to limit damage from escapes. But in the case of large-scale releases, sterile fish mating with normal stocks will result in large-scale unproductive mating. Sterile mosquitoes are released in some parts of the world to achieve exactly this effect and limit mosquito populations. Finally, there is an effect known as "the Trojan gene." GM fish grow rapidly, but in nature there is always a trade-off. While these fish have enhanced growth, they are prone to other defects -- such as deformities or reduced mobility. These genetic traits spread, significantly reducing the health of wild populations as they pass from generation to generation.
Computer modelling done by Purdue University in Indiana estimates that 60 fertile GM fish introduced into a natural population of 60,000 could decimate the stock in a span of 40 generations.
Last year, a U.S. company called A/F Protein applied for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to commercialize a species of GM salmon. GM salmon are being developed at A/F Protein's Canadian subsidiary -- Aqua Bounty Farms -- with facilities in PEI and Newfoundland. It is not known for certain whether any company has applied to bring GM fish to market in Canada. Because of our secretive review and approval process, a company could ask for the go-ahead to market GM fish and the first thing Canadians would know about it is when the okay is given. People whose lives and livelihoods may be affected have no say in the matter.
The DFO began developing a policy on the research and rearing of GM fish that has been stalled in the draft stage since 1992. Traditional fishermen are rightly worried about the impact of GM fish on fish stocks. The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association has voiced flat-out opposition to the notion. And while other Canadian fish growers have expressed little or no interest in GM farming, they will be under enormous economic pressure to adopt the fast-growing GM fish if they reach the market.
There seem to be few compelling reasons for companies such as Aqua Bounty Farms to continue their research. GM fish will not "feed the world." It takes about four pounds of fish meal and oil feed to produce one pound of farmed salmon.
But GM fish could be coming soon. Either swimming across the border from escapes in the Unites States (that 100,000 release came from a Maine facility), from slips at Canadian production facilities or through an approval for commercialization that takes us by surprise. At the same time, scientists admit they have no idea what might happen when GM fish escape, and Canada still has no formal mechanism in place to receive input from fishermen, coastal communities or consumers.
Scary thought. Time to stop the experiment while we figure out what to do. Jo Dufay is campaign director for Greenpeace Canada.
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