Derisively labeled “Frankenfish” by biotechnology opponents, genetically engineered (GE) fish are nonetheless circling closer to U.S. dinner tables. News that the U.S. government is close to approving the first genetically engineered animal – AquaBounty’s Atlantic salmon – for production and consumption has upset biotech naysayers and kicked off a lengthening list of “what if” scenarios.

What if the GE salmon impact the commercial fishing industry’s bottom line?

What if GE salmon aren’t labeled as such in grocery stores?

What if GE salmon-farming operations aren’t as diligent with security as they should be?

What if the GE salmon escape farms and swim wild?

What if Atlantic salmon escape into the Pacific?

“It’s very straight-forward. These fish are basically genetically identical to all other Atlantic salmon with one exception: we’ve added a single gene for the growth hormone from a Chinook salmon,” Ron Stotish, AquaBounty president and CEO, told Farm Press in a recent interview. “A single copy of that gene has been placed in the Atlantic salmon background so that fish grows faster than the unmodified Atlantic salmon.”

For more, see Genetically-engineered salmon on the dinner table?

Stotish said that equates to “roughly one gene out of, probably, 30,000 … a very minor, very specific change. And what we’ve done is basically give the fish the ability to grow faster when conditions – water temperature and food -- permit. That distinguishes it from its wild counterpart.”

The GE salmon’s actual rate of growth means it is able to reach“market-weight in approximately half the time.”

A cold-water fish, GE salmon are unlikely to be raised in the South. But aquaculture has a strong presence in the region with catfish ponds and processing plants.

Asked about the GE salmon controversy, Carole Engle says “there a lot of groups that are very afraid of genetically-modified (GM) products of any sort. There are groups of consumers who do not trust it and worry that whatever is modified genetically will somehow get into the environment and cause genetic problems down the road for wild populations – and for those who consume genetically modified products.”

Engle, who directs the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff (UAPB) sayssuch fears “are present around the world. Europeans are especially concerned of GM products and have a lot of prohibitions regarding them.

“The United States does not have broad prohibitions against GM products. We do have some consumer groups who worry about it and who are opposed to its adoption. Others are in favor of it.

“The general fear is that, when you start tinkering with genetics, that those efforts will eventually have all sorts of consequences in the environment that we are not prepared to handle or deal with.”

From a cost perspective, Engle says the GE fish rate of growth is “a fabulous thing. If you can turn over your product quickly, get it big and to market-size and convert it into cash fast, that’s a good thing.

“There is no question that quick growth is a good thing in terms of economics. It will make the operation more profitable and will decrease the cost of raising salmon. The speed of the GE salmon growth results in an amazing productivity gain.  

“Ultimately, the consumer can benefit from a cheaper food product and, at the same time, it will be more profitable for producers.”

Escape possibilities

Is it fair to say that some of these GM salmon will eventually escape into the wild? Like with Asian carp?

Engle rejects the comparison. “Asian carp did not escape from fish farms. That’s not what happened. … Asian carp escaped first from hatcheries – state and federal hatcheries – that did not have screens over drains back in the 1970s. Back then, no one was paying attention to whether fish were getting off hatcheries, or not.

“We also know that Asian carp were stocked into sewage treatment lagoons in small municipalities. The EPA was encouraging these small towns to stock Asian carp to help treat wastes in their sewage lagoons. There is evidence that Asian carp did escape from some of those facilities directly into the White River and elsewhere.

“So, the initial escapes did not come from fish farms.”

Regarding the likelihood of GM salmon escaping, Engel says “nothing is impossible and I won’t say that it is not possible for a fish to get off a farm. It is possible.

While she hasn’t spent as much time on salmon farms as she has on catfish ponds, Engle has seen how both operate. “The way things are done today and with the level of technology employed, I believe that it is unlikely that many salmon would escape from farms.

“This is because I know how these farms are run. Salmon farms are high-tech operations that are run by sophisticated corporations. They have been under a microscope primarily due to concerns on the West Coast over the possibility of their escape. One of the concerns on the West Coast is that the salmon raised are Atlantic, not Pacific salmon. So, there are cages of Atlantic salmon being raised in the Pacific Ocean.”

Such operations have been scrutinized “for decades because of possible escapes of Atlantic salmon into the Pacific. Salmon farmers go to great lengths to prevent escapes.

“Whether there is a real problem from escapes depends on how many fish might reach the wild. I think that it is unlikely that large numbers would get into the wild.

“But it is possible. A typhoon or something similar could come through that would result in some escapes, but the probability is low.

“Again, the magnitude of the environmental effect would largely depend on the number of such (GE) fish that might get into the wild.”

No GE cafish

Asked if anyone is producing GE catfish, Engle says no. “The catfish industry has stayed away from genetically modified products because it is so controversial. They might be able to achieve faster gains if they did go with GE stock, but they have deliberately gone the other way because of concerns about consumer acceptance.

“Instead of going the GE route, the catfish industry has focused on traditional breeding. Scientists have developed select strains by crossing different families of catfish. Those are the same techniques used for developing improved performance in hogs and cattle.

“Right now, there is a lot of interest in raising hybrid catfish – a straight hybrid between the channel and blue. There is no genetic engineering involved in those fish.”