A Fish Out Of (Fresh)water: GMO Salmon Making Ground In Indiana

Jun 8, 2018

The first genetically-modified animal for human consumption could be arriving in grocery stores across the United States as early as next year.

Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies has developed a biotech salmon that it plans to grow near no major body of water, in a production facility in the small town of Albany, Indiana. The company producing the breed of high-tech fish hopes to change the aquaculture industry.

As unlikely as the location is, the fish is just as unusual.

Science Behind the Fish

AquaBounty will produce a GMO salmon that CEO Ron Stotish says will grow faster than freshwater-raised fish. “It does so because we’ve given it the ability, using the same biological process that regulates growth in the unmodified salmon, to grow about twice as fast reaching market rate about half the time,” Stotish says. The technology has been around since the 1990s, but it took until 2015 to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, due to concerns about people eating genetically-modified animals.

The genetic makeup of the biotech fish takes a growth-hormone regulatory gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon with a promoter gene from an ocean pout and puts it into the genome of an Atlantic salmon. The result causes for the growth hormone to remain on leading to faster growth rate than non GMO salmon. The modified fish is able to grow to market size using 25 percent less feed than the traditional salmon, increasing cost efficiency.

University of California-Davis genomics professor Alison Van Eenennaam testified to the FDA as it was considering AquaBounty’s case. She says the protein in the fish is the same as other freshwater salmon and poses no human consumption risk.

“As an animal breeder, we breed for fast growing animals all the time. I mean if you look at a chicken today, versus 50 years ago, you know they grow more rapidly through conventional breeder and this is just using biotech to do the same thing,” Eenennaam says. Stotish says his operation causes less harm than traditional fish farming. “We’re not using coastal waterways, we’re not putting antibiotics and medications into the water,” Stotish says. “Our fish are in a controlled environment, we don’t need antibiotics, we don’t have to treat for sea lice.”

Why Indiana?

The Albany facility – which used to be a conventional fish farm – was approved earlier this year by the FDA. However, while renovations are being finished up, company leaders wait on an import alert to be lifted so GMO salmon eggs may be brought from Canada into the U.S.

The space includes tanks ranging in size – from 23,775 gallons to 68,684 gallons – where the salmon will grow to market size. Drum filters and biofilters sit close by to clean the water and recirculate it into the tanks, reusing most of the water and reducing that of which is disposed of.

Located near no major body of water, puting the facility in the Midwest could be considered an odd location to some, but Stotish points to the reduced costs that will come with producing the fish closer to consumers.

“It makes environmentally sustainable, it reduces the carbon footprint of salmon production, and it dramatically reduces the cost of transportation,” Stotish says. “So for instance, flying 747s full of salmon to the U.S. market, we’re trucking it at ten cents a kilo instead of two dollars a kilo.”

He also says the fish will be more fresh due to limited travel time.

The Hoosier state hasn’t historically been a huge competitor when it comes to the aquaculture industry, but Stotish sees places like Indiana as the solution to a growing need.

“There is zero significant commercial aquaculture in the United States and that’s something we hope to change,” Stotish says.

Safety Concerns

But AquaBounty has had to swim against the current of groups that oppose the biotech fish due to environmental and health concerns. Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen worries the bar has been set too low when it comes to genetically-modified animals. He says the tests done to show the fish are safe were inadequate.

“With the growth hormone that was put into the fish, they tested over 70 fish for presence of the growth hormone in the flesh of the animal and they couldn’t detect it in a single one,” Hansen says. “So rather than realize that they had a bad test because they couldn’t detect anything, rather than do that, both the company and the agency concluded from that data that they were no differences in growth hormone levels between the treated and untreated fish.”

He also points to environmental concerns he and others have raised over if the fish were somehow to escape the facility and windup in a habitat with non-modified salmon.

On a tour of the facility, Stotish shows the several precautions made to prevent any of the fish from escaping.

“This is the most contained facility probably anywhere in the world; anywhere in the industry,” Stotish says. “This is above and beyond anything that exists.”

UC Davis’s Alison Van Eenennaam says the fish’s genetic makeup also makes it unlikely they’d survive – let alone breed – outside the facility.

“The fish cannot get out into wild the ocean and they’re also being raised as females and triploids, which makes them infertile,” Eenennaam says. “That really is a containment approach to prevent any escapement and interbreeding with the wild fish populations.”

But Stotish sees his company forging the way for the future of aquaculture. “We’re the pioneers, we’ve taken the hits, but we believe this is an important activity,” Stotish says. “It’s going to be important in the future for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is there is soon to be 9 billion people on this planet. There is not enough terrestrial resources or aquatic resources to meet the protein needs of these 9 billion people.”

Kroger, Target and Aldi have already announced they will not sell AquaBounty’s biotech salmon. Stotish hopes that once the product is ready to hit the shelves, some of the stores might change their mind.

“We don’t think we’ll have a problem,” says Stotish. “And our experience to date is the big distributors aren’t turned off by that. They recognize the quality of the product and simply time and familiarity will erode those barriers.”

Because Stotish believes in the product so much, he doesn’t see the salmon being sold at a discounted rate from market price.

“I have never considered discounting it because it’s a better product than what’s out there and there’s no real basis for discounting it,” Stotish says.

Last year the first batch of the biotech salmon went to market in Canada after being produced in the company’s Panama location.

Once the eggs arrive at the Albany facility, it will take about 18 months before the first batch of fish is ready to go to market.