Historical data from a weather station near the Panamanian facility suggest that, contrary to what the company told its investors, there was nothing “unusually severe” about the storm. In fact, it isn’t clear which storm the memo is even referring to. There were several precipitation events in late July and early August, as is common that time of year. That August saw 36 inches of rain. In August of 2010, by comparison, over 61 inches of rain fell.
Susan Turner, spokesman for AquaBounty, told me via email that the damage in August 2008 was not caused by flooding. It happened when a tree fell on an intake pipe, which interrupted the supply of fresh water, which caused the fish to suffocate. She had no comment on why the memo blamed the failure on an “unusually severe storm.”
Turner told me the Panama facility is located “...on top of a mountain and is intentionally far from any waterways, so there is no possibility of escape.”
This, according to the FDA’s literature, is false. A briefing packet for a meeting of the FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, or VMAC, held in September 2010, mentions an “adjacent” river that “runs next to the facility,” and states, “should escape of AquAdvantage Salmon occur in Panama, survival is only expected in the vicinity of the grow-out facility and upper watershed of the adjacent river.”
The possibility of ecological damage by escaped salmon near the grow-out facility was also investigated by the Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama (ARAP) in late 2009, and there was talk of ordering the next batch of fish destroyed for both legal and environmental reasons. Proper paperwork had not been filed, and according to La Estrella, the ARAP's research director, Ana Luisa Garcia, warned that if these fish are accidentally released into a natural habitat, like the “stream that runs near the area where the [fish] pools lie, it would cause ecological problems due to the predatory nature of the salmon.”
Tim Schwab, of Food and Water Watch, agrees. "Scientists have noted the myriad ways in which GE salmon could have a negative impact on aquatic life, but the FDA really hasn't investigated this issue, in part because the agency doesn't have the necessary expertise,” he said. “The FDA should have been consulting with other regulatory bodies, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all along. Unfortunately, this hasn't been happening and legislators are working hard to compel the FDA to do its due diligence on GE salmon."
Alaskan lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are acting on their constituents’ fears that GE salmon threaten the state’s fishing industry. Senate bill 1717, "Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the United States," was introduced by Mark Begich (Dem-AK) last year. It seeks to ban GE salmon from interstate commerce and defund all FDA activities to consider approving it. The bill has the support of Begich’s Republican colleague Lisa Murkowski, who on May 17 of this year filed an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that would require the NOAA to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the environmental and economic impacts of GE fish before approving it. (Murkowski’s amendment failed in Senate on May 24.)
While legislators were working on these bills, a petition was filed in February by a consortium of environmental and consumer groups asking the FDA to regulate the salmon as a food. This might seem like common sense, as the whole point of growing these salmon is to feed people. But the FDA chose to review AquAdvantage as an animal drug, rather than a human food. In the FDA’s view, the refashioned DNA that is in every cell of the fish’s body is considered a drug, and that’s what the agency is regulating. If approved, the AquAdvantage salmon would not only be the first GE animal approved for human consumption, but the first animal drug that’s theoretically capable of swimming off into the ocean and reproducing.