In August 2008, heavy rain fell in western Panama, damaging a fish farm by a trout stream that flows out of Parque Nacional Volcan Baru. The fish inside were Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to grow faster than typical farmed salmon—twice as fast, according to its producer AquaBounty Technologies.
The fish, called AquAdvantage salmon, were created at a facility on Canada's Prince Edward Island when milt from GE males fertilized eggs of non-GE Atlantic Salmon. The fertilized eggs were transferred to the Panama grow-out center near the headwaters of the Rio Caldera, about 60 miles from the Pacific. AquaBounty intends to sell these eggs to other fish farms.
Although the AquAdvantage salmon is produced in Canada and grown elsewhere, the operation is under Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulation because the United States is the intended market. If approved, the AquAdvantage salmon would be the first GE animal allowed for human consumption. This has made the fish’s approval process especially contentious, and caused it to drag on since 1996, when the application was first filed.
In 2008, the company was raising its first commercial-sized batch of fish even though it had yet to receive permission to sell them. AquaBounty believed FDA approval was imminent, and planned to use these fish for test-marketing and PR work when they reached full size. That plan was derailed by “an unusually severe storm” in Panama, as AquaBounty revealed in an August 15, 2008, memo to investors recently uncovered by the consumer protection group Food & Water Watch.
According to the letter, damage from this storm caused the water inlet system to fail during the night: “[A]ll of these fish were lost. It was intended that the fish, subject to regulatory approval, would be marketed during the first half of 2009.”
Nearly four years later, that approval has not come, and the FDA has yet to publicly acknowledge the incident. Representatives of the agency have told me that they can’t answer any questions regarding the application because it’s still pending.
Dr. Anne Kapuscinski is a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College. She has a background in salmon conservation, and specializes in environmental risk assessment in aquaculture systems. She told me that she has serious concerns with the scientific rigor of the environmental risk assessment generated by AquaBounty that the FDA is considering for approval of the AquAdvantage salmon.
“There were a lot of things in the way they presented their approach to risk assessment and a lot of what we saw in the Environmental Assessment that was released to the public [that] suggested that they are not on the cutting edge of the state of the art of risk assessment science,” she said. “They need to be on that cutting edge when we’re dealing with a precedent-setting case, and one that is challenging because we’re dealing with an animal that’s barely domesticated. Any salmon that escapes from human control, if it’s in habitat that it can survive in, is going to continue to live. And we know that farmed salmon is a global commodity. Let’s imagine that tomorrow the FDA approved this application. The company is not going to make a profit by simply growing small numbers of salmon in Panama. That’s just a proof of concept facility. This company is going to make money by selling millions upon millions of eggs to big salmon farms all over the place.”