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Q&A: What Genetically Modified Salmon Means for the Northwest

November 19, 2015

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved the first genetically modified salmon as safe for human consumption. The approval concludes nearly 20 years of reviews looking at whether the fish are safe to eat and what environmental impacts they'll have. Here are the answers to some key questions about these fish:

What's different about these salmon?

These Atlantic salmon have been genetically engineered to grow to market size faster than regular farmed fish. The company that developed them, AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts, grows them in tanks on land.

What are the benefits of farming these fish?

The company says these faster-growing fish take pressure off wild fisheries and have fewer environmental impacts than regular farmed fish. Growing salmon in tanks on land reduces water pollution associated with fish farming in the ocean or marine inlets. The company says these fish don't need antibiotics. They're also cheaper to produce and require less food because they grow faster.

What are the risks?

Opponents of  genetically engineered salmon worry they could be raised in a way that makes it possible to escape and create environmental problems by competing with native species or interbreeding with other fish.

One study found the AquaBounty salmon can breed with brown trout and pass on some of their genes. The salmon fishing industry in the Northwest is opposed to seeing these fish produced in the region because of the potential impacts they might have on native and hatchery salmon.

What are the chances the fish will escape into the wild?

The company says it's "virtually impossible" for the fish to escape from their tanks. The FDA concluded the chances are "extremely low." But just to be safe, the company has designed the fish so they're all female and sterile. So even if they do escape, they're not supposed to be able to interbreed with other fish.

However, environmental groups and the Center for Food Safety are not convinced the company's plan is foolproof. They don't want to find out what happens if these fish get out of their tanks and start interacting with the natural world.

Will they be produced here?

So far, the answer is no. The FDA approved the company to produce these fish in just two locations – one on the east coast of Canada and one in Panama. No production facilities have been proposed in the Northwest.

Will they be labeled?

The FDA isn't requiring producers to label the fish as a genetically engineered food because officials found the AquaBounty salmon "are not materially different from other Atlantic salmon." Opponents are pressuring grocery stores not to sell the fish, and several major grocery store chains including Safeway and Kroger, which owns Fred Meyer, have already announced they won't.

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By engineering a regular Atlantic salmon, front, with a chinook gene that instructs growth hormones, AquaBounty can produce a faster-growing genetically modified salmon, back. Here's a comparison of the two at the same age.

AquaBounty Technologies