A Massachusetts company is sending genetically modified salmon to dinner tables in the U.S. for the first time. AquaBounty Technologies said it’s shipping five tons of bioengineered salmon to distributors this month.
It’s marketed as a sustainable alternative to other kinds of salmon. But AquaBounty’s fish hasn’t received the warmest reception in Alaska, where it’s often called “Frankenfish.”
Tim Bristol of Homer is the director of Salmon State, an Alaska organization defending wild salmon populations.
“It’s going to be a real challenge for us moving forward to make sure we do everything we possibly can to educate the American and the international consumer that if you want the salmon that’s best for you and supports communities and small family businesses, you need to choose wild Alaska salmon,” he said.
AquaBounty’s salmon is a genetic mixture of three different fish — Atlantic salmon, chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout. It grows twice as fast as its non-engineered counterparts, reaching full market size in 18 months.
This is the first time a company has sold genetically engineered salmon in the U.S.
Federal regulators ruled the salmon safe to eat and sell in 2015. But for a while, AquaBounty still didn’t have permission to grow its salmon in the U.S. Instead, it was working out of facilities in Canada and Panama.
That was until 2019. The latest batch of salmon headed to market in the U.S. comes from a facility in Albany, Indiana.
The Food and Drug Administration said AquaBounty’s fish are similar nutritionally to non-engineered, farm-raised Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty says their fish could help mitigate overfishing and create less pollution than farmed fish.
Not everyone’s convinced.
“It’s just a faster way of doing business and making money,” said Sara Erickson, who owns AlaSkins in Soldotna. She’s a vocal opponent of fish farming and a former commercial fisherman.
“They have a picture of a regular farmed salmon and their farmed salmon. And it looks just like a giant. I mean, what’s the point of that?” she said.
A big concern for environmental groups has been whether fish can escape from the facility and mate with wild salmon. Late last year, a federal judge ordered the FDA to look into what would happen if that occurred.
AquaBounty said there’s no risk of that happening, since it grows sterile salmon in inland-based tanks, with multiple barriers to prevent fish and eggs from escaping.
Erickson said that’s one good thing that sets AquaBounty’s salmon apart from other farmed salmon.
“And I appreciate that. In fact, all fish farming should really go to that place. But it’s a lot more expensive to do,” she said.
Erickson said salmon should be clearly labeled in stores so people know what they’re buying.
Federal law currently requires GMOs to be labeled as such. But that doesn’t just have to be through wording — a QR code, scanned with a smartphone, also suffices.
There are some exceptions to the Department of Agriculture’s current labeling law. Food served in restaurants, for example, doesn’t have to be labeled.
Labeling is voluntary in Canada, where AquaBounty previously sold its salmon.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been a vocal opponent of genetically engineered salmon. Legislation she introduced this month would require the words “genetically engineered” to appear on bioengineered salmon in stores.
It’s called the Genetically Engineered Salmon Labeling Act. Sen. Dan Sullivan is a co-sponsor.
“It would be a level of consumer awareness,” Murkowski told KDLG Friday. “Because it is only when we are aware of what is being sold, what is being put in front of us, that we can say firmly and clearly, ‘Nope. Don’t want this on my table.’”
A spokesperson from AquaBounty said the company will use the phrase “genetically engineered” on grocery store packaging.
Several grocery chains have pledged not to sell genetically modified salmon, including Safeway and Kroger, which owns Fred Meyer.
Bristol said he hasn’t heard of any Alaska businesses interested in buying the product.
“We have seen Alaskan stores carry farm-raised Atlantic salmon in the past, and usually the blowback is pretty significant and comes pretty quickly,” he said.
An AquaBounty spokesperson said the company isn’t shipping any salmon to Alaska yet.
Izzy Ross in Dillingham contributed reporting to this story.