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Genetically Modified Salmon Will Kill Regular Salmon

Escaped GM salmon could breed and pass on their genes in the wild–and those genes could cause weak salmon that eventually die off. The GM salmon companies say they have a solution to keep their fish sterile, but remember: Nature finds a way.

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Despite resistance from many corners of the agricultural world, genetically modified crops have been loosed upon the food system, with consequences that are still largely unknown. Salmon may be the next genetically modified food to land on your dinner plate. AquaBounty‘s transgenic salmon, which reach market size twice as fast as regular salmon, are set to be approved by the FDA.

As with GM crops, we’re not entirely sure what the long-term consequences will be. According to one study, escaped GM salmon could breed and pass on their genes in the wild–and that could, if we’re unlucky, lead to species extinction.

The news comes from researchers at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, who are concerned about the “Trojan gene effect,” which happens
when a GM fish reproduces faster or equally compared to its wild counterparts. If the offspring are genetically inferior, this could lead a salmon species along the path
towards extinction.

We shouldn’t worry too much yet. In lab experiments, the researchers found that regular salmon outperformed GM salmon in spawning behaviors and fertilization. And as long as GM salmon don’t escape into the wild, there won’t be a problem.

While it’s not uncommon for commercially farmed salmon to break out into the wild, AquaBounty claims that its salmon will be raised in secure inland or indoor tanks, unlike the open-ocean nets often used for farmed fish. The company also claims that “it
will market only sterile, all female AquAdvantage Salmon. Since these
fish are unable to reproduce, there can be no gene flow to wild salmon.” This is, of course, pretty much exactly what they said in Jurassic Park, and look how that turned out.

But AquaBounty will most likely not be the only company invested in the GM fish market. And even if the GM salmon don’t reproduce faster than other salmon species, they can still harm the gene pool and degrade salmon survival traits. “While the transgenic males displayed reduced breeding performance
relative to their non-transgenic rivals they still demonstrated the
ability to successfully participate in natural spawning events and thus
have the potential to contribute modified genes to wild populations,”
said Derek Moreau, lead author of the Memorial University Study, in a statement.

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Even if GM salmon isn’t ultimately approved in the U.S., it will probably be used in countries with less stringent regulations. Like it or not, the frankenfish are coming.

[Image: AquaBounty]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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