Could GM Salmon Escape Into the Wild?

Four thousand Scottish salmon escaped from Loch Duart Salmon Farm in Scotland. If ordinary salmon can escape a farm, why can’t GM salmon? Silly question. Of course GM salmon will be able to escape into the wild.

Loch Duart Salmon Farm

Loch Duart Salmon Farm is a sustainable salmon farm on the northwest coast of Scotland. They raise Scottish salmon for sale to restaurants and shops around the world.

They’ve been recognized for their environmental policies by ISO 14001, which means they take steps to minimize their impact on the environment and they comply with local and national legislation. The fish are not given antibiotics. The sites where the fish are kept are rotated, leaving each site a full year to recover โ€“ much like traditional land farming of sheep or cattle.

Loch Duart Salmon Farm has also been recognized for their animal welfare policies by Freedom Food, the RSPCA’s farm animal assurance and food labeling division. They check the farm to be sure the salmon have adequate space, food, and that the fish are behaving naturally. Fish don’t need toys or pats the way dogs and cats do, but when they’re under stress, they exhibit some strange behaviors.

Finally, the farm is owned and managed by Scots and keeps employment in the local community. If all salmon farms were run like this one, salmon farming would have a good reputation.

Accidents Happen

Even so, accidents do happen. On November 9, 2010, four thousand salmon got out of their pen and headed into the open ocean. The company has apologized for the accident, and it’s easy to believe them. A lot of money swam away that day and they’ll do their best to make sure it never happens again.

Compare that with AquaBounty’s claim (and the FDA’s implicit agreement) that their GM salmon, AquAdvantage, will never escape. Never? Other salmon farms can’t guarantee that, even though it cuts into their bottom line. What makes AquaBounty different? Nothing. They’ll apologize when the AquAdvantage salmon escapes, but the GM salmon will already be out.

Land-Based Pens in Panama

One promise that AquaBounty makes is that they’ll raise their salmon in land-based pens. It’s more expensive to raise salmon on land, which is why most operations are in the ocean.

I briefly mentioned in a previous article about AquAdvantage salmon that the salmon will be raised in Panama. Once the GM salmon are approved for consumption in the U.S., it will be very tempting to increase the profit margin by moving the pens into the ocean. At that point, it would be up to the government in Panama โ€“ or another country, if it’s more advantageous to the business plan โ€“ to decide if that’s okay.

In the U.S., it’s already illegal to farm GM fish offshore. But other countries might not have the same concerns. Local employment, fees from the farming operation, the potential to attract more fish farms (and more employment and fees) could sway any government into short-term thinking.

We could say no to buying it, but the AquAdvantage salmon would already be approved for U.S. consumption. They would be unlabeled, thus impossible to refuse to buy without boycotting the entire salmon industry.

What Can We Do?

Comments on the FDA’s proposal to not label the GM salmon are due by November 22. With only four more days to act, what can we do?

Representative Donald Young of Alaska submitted H.R. 6265, the purpose of which is โ€œto amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prevent the approval of genetically-engineered fishโ€. Senator Mark Begich, also of Alaska, has introduced a similar bill to the senate.

If those two bills fail to pass, Rep. Young has submitted H.R. 6264, โ€œto amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require labeling of genetically-engineered fishโ€. Sen. Begich has introduced a similar bill.

Advantages and Disadvantages of AquAdvantage over Wild Salmon

It’s no surprise that legislators from Alaska are teaming up to stop the GM salmon. The AquAdvantage salmon would have one advantage and three disadvantage in the wild which would work together to cause wild salmon to go extinct, thus destroying Alaska’s (and other states’) salmon fisheries.

Advantage: The AquAdvantage salmon grows faster than ordinary salmon. This makes them attractive mating partners for the wild salmon. Keep in mind that the sterilization process the AquaBounty will use on their fish is not 100% effective. About 5% of the AquAdvantage salmon will be able to reproduce.

Disadvantage: The AquAdvantage salmon needs more food than the wild salmon to sustain its growth rate. They would consume available food supplies, depleting resources in the area and competing with the wild salmon.

Disadvantage: The AquAdvantage salmon is easier for predators to catch. They just don’t seem to evade predation the way wild salmon instinctively do.

Disadvantage: The AquAdvantage salmon does not form schools as readily. This is very similar to the preceding disadvantage, in that it makes them easier to prey on. But it also means they’ll move between schools of salmon more readily, mixing more with the wild population.

In short, the AquAdvantage salmon will look more fit to the wild salmon, who will then prefer to breed with the GM salmon. However, the offspring will eat more than the ecosystem can provide and be easier to catch by other predators. It won’t take many generations before the population levels drop below critical numbers and the salmon, both GM and natural, go extinct in the wild.

Protect Wild Salmon and the Salmon Fisheries

Senator Begich and Representative Young have the right idea: protect the salmon’s natural habitat, maintain water quality, and manage wild stocks for sustainability. We don’t need genetically modified fish, just common sense wildlife management.

Contact your senators and representatives to let them know what you think of the GM salmon.

Image by eutrophication&hypoxia, used with Creative Commons license.

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10 thoughts on “Could GM Salmon Escape Into the Wild?”

  1. I’m confused by this article. On the hand, we’re made to feel the fear: these new greedy salmon are out of control teenagers. They’re going to go on a dating frenzy with ineffective methods of contraception and eat all the food in the fridge. On the other, they’re slow and useless and just going to get eaten up. In which case, the few that escape won’t survive.

    And anyways, aren’t these deadly intruders/snack foods for seals supposed to be raised in inland pens? The article makes a brief reference to this, but then ignores it.

    There have to be better things to write about – which makes me wonder what I’m doing… Oh yeah, looking for some thoughtful analysis. Unsuccessfully.

    1. It’s a complicated issue, to be sure, and I found Heather’s analysis pretty comprehensive. Like she mentions and has mentioned in previous articles, they will be raised in island pens at first, but it’s no huge leap that a Big Ag operation is going to want to expand its profit margins and eventually move to open water pens, once folks are “used” to the idea and not paying as much attention.

    2. D Templeton,

      Thanks for your comment. Becky answered your question about companies switching from land-based pens in the beginning to open-water pens later to make more profit.

      The part about AquAdvantage being easier prey than wild salmon is likely due to their continuous hunger. Their metabolism is higher and they eat a lot more than regular salmon, thus an escapee would always be looking for food.

      A hungry animal takes more risks than an animal with a full belly. AquAdvantage salmon are designed in the lab to need constant feeding.

      Since AquaBounty hasn’t said their GM salmon are weaker or slower than wild salmon, I see no reason to believe they can’t swim as fast or as far or jump as high as a wild salmon of similar size. The GM salmon are just more likely to wait until the last second to escape predators because they’ll be concentrating on their food.

      1. Is it correct to say that their consumption will be higher, giving them both an advantage in terms of sexual selection, but also a disadvantage in terms of predation?

        This would suggest that we’re not really sure if wild salmon genomes will be more or less advantageous in the wild.

        If so, the precautionary principle still probably stands. If there is even a small possibility that GMO salmon can create viable populations in the ocean that will out-compete wild salmon, then we shouldn’t be growing them.

        1. True, a GM salmon in the wild might die from predation before it managed to pass on its genes. If it didn’t, it would lay 2500-7500 eggs, which would hatch into voracious (more voracious than the salmon without GM genes) fry, and start eating all the food around them, leaving little for the other non-GM salmon.

          I agree with you that the precautionary principle stands. It could have a serious impact on already-established fisheries.

  2. What works in Scotland isn’t really a guide for what will work in the USA. Scotland is a tiny country and all the big cities are on the coast. Of course their producers are tempted to move their facilities close to the ocean. Now think of a business in Dallas or or Des Moines. They’re going to want to raise their fish as close as possible to where they get eaten. It’s cheaper and greener. I wouldn’t want the FDA to license ocean pens, but I don’t see they ever would.

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