Boston Aquarium/Creative Commons
AquaBounty Technologies Inc. proposes inserting the DNA from the ocean eelpout into a salmon egg to produce a fast-growing farmed fish for human consumption. It's the subject of a lawsuit that goes to federal court in November.

‘Frankenfish’ Lawsuit on GMO Salmon Heads to Court on Election Day

Richard Walker

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton won’t be the only ones sparring on November 8. That is also the court date for a federal lawsuit filed by 12 plaintiffs, including the Quinault Indian Nation, against several U.S. agencies for last year’s controversial approval of genetically modified salmon.

The case, Institute for Fisheries Resources et al v. Burwell et al, was filed last March against U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D., and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Quinault joined in July.

RELATED: Quinault Nation Joins Lawsuit Against FDA for Genetically Modified Salmon Approval

Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco will preside over what is officially known as Case number 3:16-cv-01574-VC. At 2:30 p.m. on November 8 he will conduct a case management conference to determine whether both sides have filed papers on time and have tried to settle the case.

AquaBounty Technologies Inc. proposes to create a fast-growing type of salmon—made from the genetic material of Atlantic salmon, Pacific salmon and ocean eelpout—in land-based farms the company says will minimize the “risk of escapes that could impact native fish populations and the risk of pollutants or contaminants that could harm marine ecosystems.”

Genes from the cold-water, bottom-dwelling ocean eelpout would enable the genetically engineered fish to produce growth hormones year-round, instead of only in warm-weather months as normal salmon do. The fish would require 20 percent to 25 percent less feed than other farmed fish, according to the company.

“Our salmon will be raised in optimized conditions with total control of the water coming in and going out, which will allow for removal of wastes and the recycling of greater than 95 percent of the water used,” the company said in a statement describing the product. “AquAdvantage® Salmon production systems will be operated at relatively low densities, so as to optimize fish health and minimize the environmental impact of the production system.”

Ultimately, the fish would be raised in farms close to major metropolitan areas, reducing the transportation distance from farm to table. “AquAdvantage® Salmon could have a carbon footprint that is 23 to 25 times less than for traditional farmed salmon,” the company stated, claiming that 95 percent of farmed salmon served in the U.S. is currently imported from Norway and Chile.

But Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp called the approval a violation of the FDA’s mandate and purpose.  said the approval of a genetically modified animal as a food is a .

“It is FDA’s job to assure that the food and drugs people consume in this country are safe for people and the environment,” said Sharp, who is also president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, in a statement in July. “The agency does not have the expertise to make this decision, and it apparently has little knowledge about the environmental impacts of these new genetically engineered animals.”

The FDA approved the genetically engineered fish under its New Deal–era authority to regulate “animal drugs,” such as veterinary medicines.

“That does not qualify them to sanction entirely new man-made animals as food,” Sharp said.

The plaintiffs’ concerns:

• AquaBounty initially plans to produce the salmon eggs in a lab in Prince Edward Island, Canada, transport the eggs to Panama to be raised and processed, and then transport the filets to the U.S. for sale.

“AquaBounty has repeatedly said it intends to grow its GE (genetically engineered) salmon in the U.S. and other locations around the world, but FDA’s approval only considered the current plans for these far-flung facilities in Canada and Panama, leaving the risk of escape and contamination of U.S. and other salmon runs unstudied,” the plaintiffs allege.

• In its decision, the FDA didn’t consider treaty rights or involve federal wildlife agencies.

“It simply did not consider how these man-created animals, engineered to grow twice as big as natural salmon, will affect the fish provided to us by our Creator,” Sharp said.

• Claims of “minimal risk of escapement” have been disproved in other cases.

“In the past decade, GE crops have repeatedly escaped confinement, despite industry and U.S. government assurances that they would not,” the plaintiffs said. “These escapes have cost U.S. farmers literally billions of dollars, in lost markets and sales, to GE contamination–sensitive domestic and export markets. Escape and contamination risks are even greater here, with a highly migratory fish that could threaten some of the last remaining wild salmon on the planet.”

Biologists have long been concerned about the risks of genetically engineered fish crossbreeding with native stocks.

“A transgene introduced into a natural population by a small number of transgenic fish will spread as a result of enhanced mating advantage, but the reduced viability of offspring will cause eventual local extinction of both populations, researchers William M. Muir and Richard D. Howard of Purdue University concluded in an April 2000 study.

Likewise, a 2002 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that production of genetically engineered fish and shellfish “might result in environmental benefits” when compared to conventional aquacultural practices, but “possible environmental hazard pathways posed by escape or stocking of transgenic shellfish into natural ecosystems have not yet been thoroughly considered.”

In addition, food industry professionals have long been opposed to the use of genetically engineered animals as human food. As far back 2002, 200 chefs, grocers and seafood distributors in 40 states pledged not to purchase genetically engineered fish, or “Frankenfood,” as one chef put it to The New York Times.

The Quinault Indian Nation is not the only tribe to officially object to the FDA’s approval. Within a month of the FDA announcement in 2015, the Yurok Tribe had passed an ordinance prohibiting all genetically engineered organisms from its territory.

RELATED: Frankenfish Fail: Yurok Ordinance Bans Genetically Engineered Organisms

“The Yurok People have the responsibility to care for our natural world, including the plants and animals we use for our foods and medicines,” Yurok Tribe Chairman James Dunlap said in a statement from the tribe last December. “This ordinance is a necessary step to protect our food sovereignty and to ensure the spiritual, cultural and physical health of the Yurok People.”

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Debbie Fishell
Debbie Fishell
Submitted by Debbie Fishell on
I have been to Boquete, in Panama, where the AquaBounty salmon farm is and done a lot of research on it. They claim there is no chance of the fish escaping because they are located up in the mountains, but they are on a riverbank that flows down into the ocean. In the years that they have been raising GMO fish up there, I know there have been at least 2 floods due to extreme rainy seasons. They also claim that they kill and bury the fish along the riverbank, and have been doing this for years, while awaiting approval to sell them. How have they been killing them? By what method? Are there any chance of fish surviving and getting into the river? There has not been enough research done on the potential of contaminating wild salmon populations or the affects of GMO on humans who consume them. Money and greed are the only motivation here!