Environmentalists worry about GM salmon hatchery approval

Environmental groups are once again calling on the federal government to perform a risk assessment on a facility that will raise genetically-modified salmon to market size.

They say decision to approve was 'reckless' and federal government should perform a risk assessment

From left to right, Tony Reddin (The Council of Canadians), Mary Boyd (MacKillop Centre), Sharon Labchuk (Earth Action P.E.I.), Mark Butler (Ecology Action Centre), and Karen Wristen (Living Oceans Society) gathered at UPEI to express their concerns over AquaBounty hatchery approval. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Environmental groups are once again calling on the federal government to perform a risk assessment on a facility that will raise genetically-modified salmon to market size.

A new AquaBounty hatchery was approved last week by the province for the company's Rollo Bay West site.

Karen Wristen with Living Oceans Society says the risks involved with producing genetically modified salmon need to be better examined.

"When you start talking about modifying something that's capable of moving around on its own and doing its own thing, you really need to be sure that you've assessed all the potential for risk, and that just hasn't been done here."

'We're deeply concerned'

At a small press conference at the University of Prince Edward Island on Tuesday, five representatives from local and national environmental groups expressed their concern over the approval of this project.

"Our main concern is that these fish will escape and breed with wild salmon thereby changing the genetic makeup of wild salmon and also potentially [competing] with wild salmon," said Ecology Action Centre's Mark Butler.

Karen Wristen, the executive director of Living Oceans Society, said, 'You really need to be sure that you've assessed all the potential for risk, and that just hasn't been done here.' (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

"We're deeply concerned that the already endangered fish of this province will be further imperiled by the release of genetically modified fish," added Wristen.

Ottawa says federal environmental assessment not needed

In previous statements to CBC, Environment and Climate Change Canada has said that the activity at the new facility does not require a federal environmental assessment. It has reviewed the province's risk assessment.

Under federal notice, AquaBounty is required to only raise sterile fish in fully-contained, secure, land-based tanks, and the fish must be killed before they leave the facility.

Environmental groups are concerned that genetically modified salmon production might be a risk to native Atlantic salmon if they escape. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

The inability of the GMO fish to reproduce is intended to further safeguard wild fish populations.

The province has ordered AquaBounty to inform the province if a fish escapes or is released, and has asked AquaBounty for their procedures if this happens.

No fish are allowed to be raised at the site until that plan is approved by the province.

The province also ordered AquaBounty to provide monthly water-quality test results for a minimum of two years. Those findings will be posted on a government website for public viewing.

First ever GM food animal approved for sale in Canada

Mary Boyd, with the Mackillop Centre, said that the decision to approve the project was "reckless."

She said it's unknown what this project could mean for the salmon industry as a whole.

"If you can't trust your salmon anymore…. That it might be genetically modified. Are you going to buy any salmon? It's a huge problem."

A comparison of the GMO salmon versus a wild (bottom) or farmed salmon (top). (AquaBounty)

AquaBounty's AquAdvantage Salmon is the first ever genetically modified food animal approved for sale in Canada and the U.S.

Preliminary construction work at the AquaBounty site in Rollo Bay West has now begun.

Total cost of the project is $13 million, according to the company's application for an environment impact assessment.

With files from Laura Chapin and Brian Higgins