Add an extra copy of the king salmon growth gene to an Atlantic salmon, toss in a gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout, and voila! You've got a new fish that grows twice as fast.
You've also got some unhappy Alaskans. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich calls it a "Frankenfish" and Trout Unlimited worries the new fish could contaminate wild stock as well as undercutting wild salmon on price.
The Food and Drug Administration is close to approving the new salmon, which is named AquAdvantage Salmon and was created by AquaBounty, a Massachusetts-based company. FDA scientists have declared that the new salmon is safe to eat and does not pose a threat to the environment (read their analysis here) but public meetings scheduled for Sept. 19 will open the issue up to the public. The Washington Post also reported the new fish would be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption.
"Let's call this genetically engineered fish for what it is: Frankenfish," Begich said in a press release, which also called the AquAdvantage Salmon "risky and a threat to the survival of wild species."
Not so, said John Buchanan, the director of research and development at AquaBounty. There is no threat to wild stock because as a result of FDA requirements all of the AquAdvantage Salmon would be female, sterile, and grown in buildings located on land, Buchanan said.
And another big benefit of fast-growing salmon is that raising the fish indoors is suddenly economical, Buchanan said, whereas with normal-growing fish it's not.
"We think we could compete on price with salmon grown in net pen facilities," said Buchanan, who is also "optimistic" about the fish's chance for FDA approval. "The data that we've provided (to the FDA), in our opinion, satisfies all the requirements for approval."
Still, some Alaskans are unconvinced. "The underlying principal is that once you open this door, you open up the potential for accidental immigration of genetically modified salmon into Pacific waters," said Elizabeth Dubovsky, director of the WhyWild program, which is run out of Trout Unlimited's Juneau office.
Dubovsky also worries about how more cheap salmon might affect the price of the more expensive wild salmon. The AquAdvantage Salmon could undercut the price of wild salmon, she said, "and that undermines our fishing communities in Alaska."
"It's really disconcerting to hear the FDA is leaning in the direction of approving this," Dubovsky said.
Buchanan said that in the last 10 years AquaBounty has spent $50 million on studies that have shown no differences between their fish and farmed fish.
Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.