Environmentalists are alarmed that a U.S.-based company with a plant in P.E.I. plans to sell its genetically modified salmon eggs to any approved fish farmer if the company gets U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

Ron Stotish, CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, said the company has always planned to sell its genetically modified eggs to fish farmers willing to grow them in land-based facilities.

The AquaBounty experimental fish plant in Bay Fortune produces the genetically modified Atlantic salmon eggs. Implanted genes make the fish grow at twice the natural rate. AquaBounty has asked the FDA to approve the fish for commercial sale as food.

If the company is successful, the salmon would be the first genetically modified food animal on the market.

pe-mi-aquabounty-salmon-300

These salmon are the same age, but one is genetically engineered to grow twice as fast. (Aquabounty)

"We expect there will be people in the United States and Canada once the product is approved that will be interested in growing that fish," said Stotish.

"They would not be going to net pens or sea cages," he said. "They will all have to fulfil the requirements of the conditions for approval and sale of the product."

In the U.S, that would mean FDA approval. Elsewhere, fish farmers would also have to meet all regulatory requirements of that country, said Stotish.

The news caught environmentalist Lucy Sharratt off guard. She is co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, the group leading an Atlantic forum against AquaBounty that includes delegates from P.E.I., Ottawa and Washington. The group's final presentation is in St. John's Thursday night.

Random site inspections

Sharratt said an FDA environmental review released last year found the salmon wasn't a significant threat to the environment, but the review only looked at the company's egg-hatching facility in Bay Fortune and the Panama fish-rearing plant.

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Sharratt didn't think this would allow AquaBounty to sell its eggs worldwide.

"And this is exactly where the risk to wild Atlantic salmon comes from," said Sharratt. "These multiple locations, with different environmental conditions, where there's no monitoring and enforcement of containment on inland facilities."

Sharratt said this increases the risk genetically modified salmon will escape into the wild.

AquaBounty says an environmental assessment would have to be done on each fish farm location, and be reviewed and  approved. And the sites would be inspected to ensure the fish farmer was complying with the conditions for growing these fish, such as proper containment.

Authorities could make inspection visits at any time to see that the aquaculture facility is in compliance, said Stotish. If the grower isn't in compliance, AquaBounty wouldn't be allowed to ship eggs to them anymore.

FDA decision date unknown

Stotish said Sharratt's concerns aren't warranted.

"It's not rocket science," said Stotish.

"You conduct the same analysis. You use the same containment provisions, you use the scientific method, you do a risk assessment. Environmental assessments are in almost every aspect of our lives, almost every day of the year: mining, fishing, you know, zoning, real estate, home construction. I mean, this is not something new or novel. It's something people know how to do and can be done."

The actual genetic alterations that have been done to the fish also help stop their spread, said Stotish. Most of the fish are sterile and all are females, so there will not only be physical containment, but biological containment as well.

Stotish feels that AquaBounty has gone to great lengths to reassure the public that this fish doesn't represent a danger. He said, if approved, it would be the most heavily regulated aquaculture product on the market.

It's been reported the FDA's environmental assessment of AquaBounty's plans have been sent to an office in the White House for review. But when the FDA will announce its decision is anyone's guess. The agency will not reveal timelines to CBC News or AquaBounty. 

However, some believe the decision will be released soon and when that happens there are a few possible outcomes:

  • The FDA could refuse AquaBounty's application.
  • It could ask for further environmental review.
  • It could give the go-ahead.

If the FDA says yes, there will be a 30-day public comment period and the FDA's final environmental assessment of AquaBounty's plans will be made public.