By Mark Butler and Catharine Grant.
When most people think of Prince Edward Island, they think of potatoes, red beaches, Anne of Green Gables and fresh, wild-caught seafood. Unfortunately, beneath these idyllic images lies a more disturbing reality: PEI is also home to Canada’s first genetically-modified fish, one which poses a major threat to our wild Atlantic salmon stocks.
In late 2013, the federal government approved the development of genetically modified Atlantic salmon eggs in a facility in PEI. These eggs contain the DNA from Atlantic salmon spliced with genetic material from Chinook pacific salmon and ocean pout (an eel-like marine fish). The purpose of this genetic modification is to create a fish that grows faster, so fish farms can produce more fish in a shorter time. The eggs are being grown by the American company AquaBounty, and are being shipped to a facility in Panama to grow to market size. AquaBounty’s goal is to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada to sell full size GM salmon to consumers. If approved, this will be the first ever genetically modified food animal in the world to hit grocery store shelves.
Setting aside health concerns regarding GM technology, the biggest concern we have is the possible impacts on wild Atlantic salmon. The GM salmon being developed are supposed to be sterile, but according to DFO’s own analysis, up to 5% of them will be able to breed. And it’s been documented that they will be able to breed with Atlantic salmon and brown trout.
Imagine this scenario: GM salmon escape from a facility and start to breed with our wild Atlantic salmon stocks, thereby forever changing their fundamental genetic make-up – the essence of what they are. Equally worrisome is the prospect of GM salmon (which grow faster and get to be bigger than normal Atlantic salmon) escaping and out-competing our already endangered wild salmon for food and habitat. Even with all Canadian commercial fisheries for wild Atlantic salmon closed, the outlook for the species is already so dire that, just yesterday, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans announced that this year, even the Maritimes’ anglers will not be permitted to keep fish. This announcement came in response to a drastic drop in the returns of salmon last year.
For this reason, the Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society are taking the federal government to court. We don’t think they’ve adequately assessed the risks that GM salmon pose to our wild fish stocks, and we think the “Frankenfish” needs to be stopped.
We’re also astounded by the fact that the federal government made the decision to allow the production of GM salmon in Canada without consulting with Canadians. We could set a global precedent and there has been no opportunity for Canadians to ask questions of the company or the regulator or to debate the pros and cons. Everyday municipal planning decisions involve more consultation and transparency.
We have heard that aboriginal communities have not been consulted, despite the importance of wild salmon to them. Salmon anglers and outfitters are worried about the implications for wild salmon. Even the current aquaculture industry is concerned about public perception.
In the Unites States, more than 60 retailers have already said that they won’t sell GM salmon if it’s approved by the FDA. We expect that retailers in Canada will also be wary of selling a genetically modified animal that could harm our wild salmon stocks. Some things in nature are worthy of protection, and we believe that North America’s wild Atlantic salmon are one of those things.
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