CEO says genetically engineered salmon is no threat

AquaBounty says its GE salmon grows to maturity in half the time of a conventional Atlantic salmon. Photo: AquaBounty.

AquaBounty’s CEO says Alaska’s wild salmon industry has nothing to fear from the genetically engineered salmon her company plans to raise and sell.

Now that the federal government has lifted the last barrier, company that developed the technology plans to import GE fish eggs from Prince Edward Island, in eastern Canada, to Indiana, where they will be grown into full-sized Atlantic salmon and sold for food.

AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf has only been on the job since January. Before that, she was an executive at a major food distributor called US Foods.

“US Foods did a lot of work with the Alaska marketing group and with Trident (Seafoods), and I actually have been out on boats,” she said. “So I have the utmost respect for the Alaskan seafood industry.”

Wulf says her company’s product, the AquAdvantage salmon, fills a different market niche.

AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf. Photo: AquaBounty

“This is not in competition with wild Alaskan salmon,” she said. “Our salmon was designed to grow in a land-based system. It can’t survive in the ocean so the chances of contamination are zero.”

The only place in the U.S. that’s allowed to grow AquAdvantage now is the company’s land-locked facility in Indiana. Wulf says growing the fish to marketable size will take about 18 months. She says the method has advantages over the ocean pens that most fish farms use.

“Because they’re in bio-secured tanks, they’re not exposed to disease or predators or some of the challenges that exist with net pens in the ocean,” she said. “So antibiotic-free is another opportunity here … so I think that there’s just a real good sustainability story as we move to an alternative to net pens.”

Americans buy a lot of farmed salmon, more than 300,000 metric tons a year, and nearly all of it is imported, mostly from Chile and Norway. Wulf says the Indiana plant will produce about 1,200 metric tons – a drop in the bucket. AquaBounty intends to build facilities to produce about 30,000 metric tons of fish in five to seven years, she said. As Wulf sees it, the bioengineered fish will compete with imported Atlantic salmon.

“Because I think wild Alaska salmon is always going to be different. It’s different species. It’s caught out on the ocean. (Alaska has) a really good story about that,” she said. “But it can’t support us. It can’t support the domestic consumption.”

Dana Perls is a food policy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, and she’s not at all convinced AquaAdvantage is safe.

“The genetically engineered salmon is environmentally risky, could contaminate wild salmon populations, and even in land-locked places, the risk of escape are high,” she said.

Perls said a natural disaster could strike, destroying a fish farm. That, she said, could send engineered salmon into a river or lake that eventually empties into the ocean. She says someone might even steal the bioengineered fish and release it into the wild.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said AquaBounty would ship GE fish eggs from Newfoundland. The company’s facility is on Prince Edward Island, south of Newfoundland.