With a pitch for salmon “free of antibiotics and ocean contaminants,” AquaBounty Technologies has announced it is soon to harvest for sale in the U.S. the first of its genetically engineered “Frankenfish,” as Sen. Lisa Murkowksi likes to call them.
These are the fish born of a laboratory mix of genes from Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon and eel-like ocean pout, the fish the Alaska Republican senator fought long, hard and unsuccessfully to keep out of the marketplace.
“….This is something entirely new,” Murkowski declared on the floor of the Senate in 2016. “This is a new species. It’s that Frankenfish that we call it. It is so unnatural….It is something as Alaskans we need to stand up and defend against.”
The Frankenfish label was great as a public relations ploy, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided Murkowski was wrong about the science.
The Frankenfish is not a new species, given that a species is defined as “a group of organisms that share a genetic heritage, are able to interbreed, and to create offspring that are also fertile.”
AquaBounty’s GE salmon are all females, which makes the creation of offspring near impossible. And if that is not enough, the FDA further describes them as “effectively sterile,” as are most triploid creations.
“Triploidy is a method used in certain plants and animals, including finfish and shellfish, to prevent their sexual maturation and thereby make them functionally sterile,” according to the FDA. “In addition to providing a form of biological containment, this can redirect energy to growth instead of to reproductive development.”
It is the latter quality of the AquaAdvantage salmon – the ability to redirect energy to growth – that has concerned the Alaska fishing business more than any potential environmental or health threat.
Murkowski, hailing from a state in the business of selling wild salmon costly to catch and process, wholly understood this problem. Alaska salmon caught in fisheries designed to maximize inefficiencies are already being swamped by the ever-growing production of non-genetically-modified salmon produced at farms designed to minimize inefficiencies.
AquaBounty’s, new, faster-growing fish doubles down on the constant improvements in farming efficiency if the company’s claims and other reports can be believed.
“This fish is more sustainable and unique because it can grow to maturity in just 18 months, compared to 36 months for a traditionally farmed salmon,” wrote Lucy Stitzer at the website Dirt to Dinner, where she compared the Frankenfish to “a Labradoodle dog – a cross between a Labrador retriever and a poodle.”
Labradoodles became such a trendy breed in the 21st century that breeders copied the idea with a lot of other, fill-in-the-blank doodles: Aussiedoodles, Goldendoodles, Schnoodles, and Whoodles to name just the top dogs described by the website ThisDogsLife as “the most popular ‘designer dog(s)’ in the world today.”
AquaBounty is now in the business of raising “designer salmon” to grow fast and taste good. The grow fast element promises big market advantages because it lowers the cost of production.
“As opposed to other companies that are aiming for a premium market space, the faster growth rate of AquaBounty’s salmon means the company can get higher throughput, avoiding the need for a higher price-point,” Chris Chase, a reporter for the fishing-trade website Seafood Source, has observed.
Price point is important in the salmon business. Consumers might say they want to buy seafood that is sustainable and free from environmental conflicts, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) found after it commissioned a study of global seafood purchasing, but “price trumps sustainability” and most everything else.
The MSC is an organization that certifies “wild-caught” salmon fisheries as sustainable or not. Fisheries that are being overharvested are considering unsustainable.
Alaska’s wild-caught salmon fisheries, which are themselves about a third the result of salmon farming, are sustainable but erratic. Annual catches have yo-yoed between 120 million fish and near 200 million or more per year for almost a decade now.
The harvest in the 2020 year of the pandemic was one of the down years with the catch at 117 million. It was also a year in which supermarket seafood sales soared, as did those of meat.
This wasn’t necessarily good news for Alaska fishermen, however, with “fresh seafood” leading the supermarket sales growth. Alaska does little in the way of fresh.
Alaska harvests are constrained by the seasonality of the state’s salmon returns. The state’s fisheries provide fresh salmon in significant quantities for only a few months of the years.
The farmers do not operate under such constraints. They can provide fresh salmon year-round.
Convenience foods – those frozen processed entrees that go from the freezer to the microwave – have changed the dynamic somewhat in the 21st Century. Alaska salmon processors have been aggressive in moving into that marketing space of what they like to call “value-added” products.
This was a good move when farmed salmon were gobbling up the restaurant and fresh seafood markets. But the pandemic devastated the restaurant business, which has led the salmon farmers to both push harder into the frozen food aisle and increase efforts to market fresh salmon.
Norway-based Mowi ASA – the world’s largest seafood producer and largest salmon farmer with operations in Scotland, Canada, the Faroe Islands, Ireland and Chile – in April announced a major partnership with Target, the eighth largest retailer in the U.S., to sell more farmed fish.
“While seafood in retail space overall continues acquiring shelf-space from other protein options, Target has proven to be a true partner to educate consumers about seafood,” Joe Fidalgo, the director of Mowi’s U.S. operations, told Seafood Source. “Target seeks to offer the variety that consumers request, selecting quality and uniqueness to raise the bar for the category in the U.S. market. We are grateful for Target’s support to continue building a category that will innovate and also for the opportunity to place the Mowi Essential line at their stores.”
It was only a decade ago that Target banned farmed fish from its stores, saying that after consultation with the Monterey Bay Aquarium the company had decided it needed to act to “ensure that its salmon offerings are sourced in a sustainable way that helps to preserve abundance, species health and doesn’t harm local habitats.”
The Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” was at the time leading an assault on farms as a source of pollution, parasites and escapees that threatened wild fish. The farmers cleaned up a lot of those problems, and today the Seafood Watch “best choice” salmon all come from land-based salmon farms using recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), a couple of net-pen operations, and some Washington-state fisheries using lift nets.
And now comes Frankenfish.
It’s popular in Alaska to believe that people won’t eat such a salmon because it’s genetically modified or simply because it’s farmed and, well, farming salmon just isn’t right, or the fish don’t taste as good, or they have lice (as do most Alaska wild salmon), or the farms pollute marine bays, or whatever.
Markets, sadly, don’t care what Alaskans, or anyone else, thinks. What markets care about is what sells, and AquaBounty reports it sold its first five metric tons of salmon well before the harvest planned for the end of this month.
“Raised in land-based recirculating aquaculture systems where the feeding cycle and growing environment are optimized, AquaBounty can produce up to 70 percent more fresh salmon annually compared to conventional Atlantic salmon grown in the
same period under the same conditions. The benefit is a fresh, healthy protein that is produced more efficiently and feeds more people, which is good for consumers and the planet.”
Five tonnes of salmon – or about 11,000 pounds – amounts to no more than a speck of dust floating atop the bucket of global salmon sales. The faltering and tiny, by Alaska standards, sockeye salmon fishery in Upper Cook Inlet produced 300 times as much last summer.
But the wheels of commerce have now been set in motion in a new direction, and they are likely to drive major change. As Microsoft founder Bill Gates long ago observed, humans have a bad habit of over-estimating technological shifts in the short term and underestimating them in the long term.
New world order?
AquaBounty, which began work on its genetically engineered salmon in 1989, traveled a rough road of political opposition and lawsuits on its way to market.
Writing at Forbes more than five years ago, after the AquaAdvantage salmon first gained FDA approval only for the FDA to face a lawsuit over that decision, Jared Meyer and James Davis from the Foundation for Government Accountability observed that the fish “could lower AquaBounty’s carbon footprint 25 times over and result in lower costs for consumers.”
But they added, “hundreds of junk-science websites, many of which also wage campaigns against vaccination, have manufactured fears over GM (genetically modified) food and created a stigma against agricultural innovation.”
That was then; this is now.
Views on vaccines have shifted in the wake of the global pandemic driven by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. More than a third of U.S. citizens have already been vaccinated against that virus, according to an NBC vaccination tracker.
Among them are tens of millions (the author included) who agreed to be inoculated with new and experimental mRNA vaccines which carry unknown consequences. They are believed to be safe, but as Tal Brosh, head of the Infectious Disease Unit at Israel’s Samson Assuta Ashdod Hospital, told The Jerusalem Post, there are unique and unknown risks to messenger RNA vaccines, including local and systemic inflammatory responses that could lead to autoimmune conditions.
Israel has been a global leader in the rush to vaccinate. Many consider the quickly developed mRNA vaccines to a be medical breakthrough bordering on a miracle.
If this holds true over the longer term, it could well change thinking on other sophisticated, technological breakthroughs like genetically engineered salmon.
Should that come to pass, AquaBounty appears positioned to rapidly expand its AquaAdvantage salmon throughout the growing global network of RAS salmon farms.
“I’m proud to see AquaBounty reach this important milestone using science and technology to provide sustainable seafood for a growing population,” AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf was quoted as saying in that statement announcing the sale of the first five tonnes. “Our land-based aquaculture technology allows us to bring to market a healthy protein source.
“Raised in freshwater farms in America’s heartland in Albany, Indiana and in Rollo Bay, Prince Edward Island, Canada, AquaBounty’s salmon are free of antibiotics and ocean contaminants. Controlling the growing environment prevents exposure to parasites and pathogens that can lead to disease. AquaBounty’s fish swim and school naturally under the watchful eyes of carefully trained and experienced team members.
“Wild salmon fisheries face increasing challenges to their habitat and their health. By locating salmon farming operations on land and following strict biosecurity measures with multiple layers of containment that prevent escapes, AquaBounty helps protect wild salmon populations and native fisheries that are so important to indigenous communities and others.”
Wulf’s masterfully tailored pitch made AquaAdvantage salmon sound almost like a gift from the gods, but at the end of the day, there is likely to be only one thing that matters, and that is how the fish tastes.
Over the years, U.S. consumers have clearly demonstrated that while they might talk a lot about eating the healthiest or most politically correct foods, they really eat the foods that taste best.
“The most common unhealthy foods include highly-processed items such as fast foods and snack foods,” according to the American Heart Association. “Highly-processed foods tend to be low in nutrients (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) and high on empty calories due to the content of refined flours, sodium and sugar.”
And yet the biggest restaurant chains in the country – led by McDonald’s – are all focused on pushing fast and snack foods, and they do so much business that some scientists have suggested their products are addictive.
A 2011 study published in Current Drug Abuse Review concluded that evidence to confirm such a theory is lacking, but added that research findings “support the role of fast food as a potentially addictive substance that is most likely to create dependence in vulnerable populations.”
The big problem, the research admitted, comes in determining what drives people to eat fast food. Maybe it does taste that good, or maybe it’s just the marketing.
“Fast food advertisements, restaurants and menus all provide environmental cues that may trigger addictive overeating,” the study said. The statement is an endorsement of the documented power of advertising.
Americans seem to have some tendency to buy and eat that which is effectively sold. In this advertising-dominated arena, Alaska’s salmon hunters are now badly outgunned by the salmon farmers who control about 75 percent of the global market, continue to steadily increase their market share, and dominate the means of production in the salmon business.
Many of the major processors buying salmon in Alaska today have ties to farmed salmon as well. Seattle-based OBI Seafoods is part of the much larger Cooke Seafoods, which began in 1985 “as a humble family aquaculture company with a single marine site” in Canada, according to the company website. The company now farms salmon in Canada, the Lower 48, Scotland and Chile.
Seattle-based Trident Seafoods is affiliated with salmon farmers in Chile. Seattle-based North Pacific Seafoods is a subsidiary of Marubeni, a giant Japanese trading company that is in the RAS salmon farming business in Denmark and is involved with Proximar Seafood in the construction of a RAS salmon farm in Japan.
It is in the interest of none of those companies to push too hard – especially as regards health and environmental issues – to promote wild-caught Alaska salmon over farmed salmon. And even if they were to do so, it is questionable whether all the Alaska processors combined today have the economic power to significantly influence salmon markets.
Norway alone sells six times as much salmon as Alaska, and if the AquaBounty experiment proves a market success, it’s almost certain the highly competitive Norwegians will want to license the technology for use in some Norwegian farms.
Frankenfish could well end up being a horror story for Alaska as Murkowski has long feared, but the fright comes not from a new species but from a new business model.