The AquAdvantage salmon.
When most people say “genetically modified organism,” they usually mean a plant—corn, perhaps, or an eggplant. But that may soon change. The FDA has completed its analysis of the first genetically modified animal likely to hit supermarket shelves: the AquAdvantage salmon, made by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. Thanks to some added genes, the salmon grows 2-6 times the size of a normal Atlantic salmon in half the time, promising some respite for the planet’s heavily taxed natural fish stocks, a third of which are near extinction or exhaustion. Talking Points Memo’s IdeaLab reports that a source close to the review process says that the FDA’s environmental impact statement, which looks at what effect the salmon will have on the environment and seems to be favorable, has been passed on to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
As always with genetically modified organisms, there are questions about how the salmon’s manufacturers plan to keep its genes from getting loose in the environment. AquaBounty has developed a way to make the fish sterile, which would make spreading their genes quite tricky. At the moment, however, it only works on 98% of the salmon. Additionally, the company is only seeking approval for growing the fish in large, land-locked tanks with double-thick walls. While giant nets teeming with fish in the middle of the ocean are a sight more commonly associated with aquaculture, inland tanks make the risk of modified fish escaping much smaller.
The wild pink salmon of western Canada are in trouble: In the early 2000s, their numbers in some locations swiftly dropped by 90 percent or more. One explanation put forth for this steep population decline is that sea lice, parasites ubiquitous on farmed salmon, jumped to the wild variety of the fish. But this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a new study casts doubt on that idea and says the sea lice are not to blame.
When Gary Marty of the University of California, Davis, and his colleagues looked at that aspect for the Broughton Archipelago of western Canada, they found that salmon survival was not lower in years when the juveniles passed by louse-infested farms. This, they say, suggests that something other than sea lice must be reducing survival rates. [New Scientist]
Marty’s team checked up on a decade worth of data dating back to before the 2002 crash, and found a few interesting things. First, they say, the predominance of the lice in wild populations appears to predict the number found in farms a little later, suggesting the parasites travel from wild salmon to farmed ones and not the other way around. Second, they argue, it does appear that a high number of lice in the farmed fish predicts higher than normal exposure for the juveniles of the wild variety, but that increased exposure can’t account for the huge population drop in the wild salmon.
An FDA advisory panel has decided what it thinks about genetically modified salmon, and its decision is to not make a decision. The committee says it doesn’t have enough data to fully support approving the biotech salmon, which would make it the first such animal in the country.
“We are missing data,” said panel member James McKean, a professor at Iowa State University. He said that “leaves a cloud” over the FDA staff’s analysis. [Wall Street Journal]
But some other panel members agreed with the FDA’s position that the fish was fine.
“In conclusion, all of the data and information we reviewed … really drive us to the conclusion that AquAdvantage salmon is Atlantic salmon, and food from AquAdvantage salmon is as safe as food from other Atlantic salmon,” said Kathleen Jones of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. [ABC News]
In about a week and a half, officials at the Food and Drug Administration must complete their final deliberations over whether or not to approve a genetically modified salmon as the first GM animal in the world sold for human consumption.
It would seem they’re leaning toward “yes.”
Last Friday, while the country was preparing to go on vacation, the FDA released an analysis (pdf) of the transgenic salmon created by AquaBounty Technologies of Waltham, Massachusetts, declaring it safe to eat and safe for the environment.
The AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon contains a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon that is kept active all year round by a genetic on-switch from a different fish, the ocean pout. Normally, salmon produce growth hormone only in warm weather. So with the hormone produced year round, the AquAdvantage salmon grow faster [The New York Times].
“Faster” is an understatement. A normal Atlantic salmon requires about 30 months to grow large enough so that it can be sold at market. But a GM salmon with year-round growth hormone bulks up to market size in barely more than half that time—16 months or so.
Bluefin tuna–they’re so delicious, they’re on the brink of extinction. The human appetite for this majestic fish has spurred overfishing that has endangered the wild population, so researchers and aquaculture companies are trying to breed the fish in captivity. But so far bluefin tuna have proved very difficult to farm, since it’s impossible to replicate their natural reproductive cycle–researchers think the fish travel hundreds of miles to their traditional spawning grounds. The best results so far have come from an Australian company that is using hormone injections to get the big fish to breed.
Now researchers associated with a European project called Selfdott (an odd acronym for “self-sustained aquaculture and domestication of thunnus thynnus”) say they can successfully raise fish in captivity without using hormones. The New York Times reports that the first batch of fish, raised in floating cages, died after a matter of weeks or months, but researchers still think that with better food and parents more adjusted to captivity, the next group of fish will survive.
“If the results of this research can ultimately be commercialized, it can improve food supplies and contribute to economic growth and employment while also helping to ensure a sustainable management of bluefin tuna,” Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Union’s commissioner for research, said this week. [New York Times]
The Chesapeake Bay was once carpeted with oysters, but that was before centuries of overfishing, pollution, and disease took their toll: Today the oyster population has been reduced to less than 1 percent of its historical population. But a new restoration effort has shown unprecedented progress in bringing the bivalves back. In the Great Wicomico River, a tributary of the Bay, researchers have created a 87-acre oyster colony that contains about 185 million oysters.
The Chesapeake’s oyster reefs were destroyed by centuries of watermen towing rakelike metal “dredges” and silted over by dirt flowing from the mid-Atlantic’s farms and growing cities. The final blow came in the mid-20th century: A pair of new diseases killed oysters by the millions. Now, in many places, the bay bottom is a flat expanse of green mud. “Just picture, you know, a clear-cut forest,” said Kennedy Paynter, a biology professor [Washington Post].
A new United Nations report has sparked outrage with its suggestion that fish farming should be dramatically increased to keep pace with growing fish consumption. Although the U.N. report presents aquaculture as a way to take pressure off wild fish stocks, conservationists say that fish farms indirectly snatch the food from many wild predator fish, marine mammals, and birds.
Environmental groups say the report appeared to ignore the huge environmental problems posed by fish farms: particularly the need to “hoover up” vast quantities of smaller fish like blue whiting, anchovies, sardines and sand eels, and more recently even krill, to feed the farmed fish [The Guardian]. Critics also worry that water-borne antibiotics and hormones used in fish farms are polluting the ocean, and say that farmed fish are more likely to catch infectious diseases, which escapees can transmit to wild schools.