In defense of FrankenFish

FDA is about ready to approve a modified species of Atlantic salmon for land-based fish-farming. Why not?

My mind is alive to the health, safety, and environmental risks of technological innovation, but at heart I’m a propeller-head. So if someone figures out a way to implant some genes from other fish species to make farm-raised (and therefore not interbreeding with wild fish) Atlantic salmon to make them grow bigger and faster, my instinct is to say “Hurrah.”

Yes, it would be better to change the rules about fishing to be able to raise fish efficiently in the ocean, but that ain’t gonna happen. If you’re anti-GMO, consider this an open invitation to invent some scenario in which allowing GMO salmon in closed-pen fish-farming could have a bad result.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “In defense of FrankenFish”

  1. There are plenty of examples in which supposedly “closed-pen” fish farming has had deleterious results on natural ecosystems and populations of fish. There are, in general, four types of problems. First, the high densities characteristic of aquaculture contribute to diseases and infestations that have made it into wild populations of fish. Second, pens are not as closed as advertised and fish often escape, raising the risk of interbreeding with wild populations. Your parenthetical statement “and therefore not interbreeding with wild fish” is just a fairy tale. Third, depending on the water depth, waste products from aquaculture facilities can accumulate on the bottom and create detrimental impacts. Fourth, while other food products are under development, feed for predatory fish like salmon comes from capture and processing of lower trophic level fish from wild populations. This increases the risk of reduced prey items for wild populations as well as of ecological impacts to foodwebs. There is plenty of scientific and not-so-scientific literature on all of this. And, some healthy skepticism about the sterility of the GMO fish would be wise. There are numerous examples from terrestrial agriculture of GMO organisms ending up where they were never supposed to occur and behaving in ways they were guaranteed not to.

  2. The post didn’t make it clear, but the underlying story did. There are two kinds of “closed” fish-farms: net pens, which are indeed porous, and land-locked ponds that don’t connect with rivers or lakes at all. Hard to see how anything escapes from the latter system, which is the proposal the FDA is considering.

    1. A few notes on salmon farming.

      Closed pens are sometimes used inland but only for freshwater fish. Salmon would almost certainly need to be raised immediately on the coast. Salmon will need a steady supply of appropriate salt water for rearing and as a result, inland farms would be impractical.

      Here is a cbc story with photos of both an ‘open’ net-pen and a ‘closed’ pen.

      The pen is being built directly on Middle Bay in British Columbia. As the photo makes clear, it is literally on the Pacific Ocean.

      I realize that the immediate FDA application is for what I will call ‘Super-Max’ farms but that is not the point of the approval process. Salmon farming is already an enormous industry world-wide of which the United States is barely a participant. The U.S. states most likely to host such farms have traditionally been very hostile to the idea (especially Alaska) and would be unlikely to embrace genetically modified salmon. I suspect that these FDA applications are less about expanding farms in the U.S. than about leveraging approval abroad.

  3. And to the extent that the fish in those landlocked ponds out-earn other fish, we will find that landlocked is only so if no humans are involved. Add humans and the profit motive and you can guarantee that some breeding specimens will leave those ponds for parts unknown.

  4. @JMG,

    It’s unclear to me exactly how this thing works, but the production fish are apparently (mostly, I would read it) infertile. Apparently they’ve inserted a redundant chromosome that mucks the meiotic system.

    In humans with trisomy 21, males are almost always infertile due to problems with spermatogenesis. Females exhibit lowered fertility levels relative to purely diploid women. So, the translocated genetic package can escape into the wild only if females (with lowered fertility levels) and greatly increased food requirements can (1) outcompete normal Atlantic salmon females for mates and (2) produce enough offspring for the translocation in meiosis has a high probability of occuring.

    (1) is possible, depending on what the sexual selection factors for male Atlantic salmon are. If the boys favor big girls, then this provides big girls with a vengeance. But this also presumes a population of Atlantic salmon for the girls to mate with. Farmed salmon apparently do not fare well in the wild: escaped fish are not generally caught by fishermen. This suggests that they are not surviving to breed or they aren’t finding freshwater streams in which to breed.

    They will need to pipe seawater into the ponds, but setting the ponds a half-mile or so from the shore should provide enough of a buffer.

    All in all, this system strikes me as very similar to hybrid corn. Yes, farmers growing hybrid corn (which today means almost everyone growing corn) could conceivably plant seed held from last years harvest, but that F2 or F3 (if it’s a dihybrid cross) seed is going to be a complete genetic mishmash of traits. If you grow hybrid corn, you buy new seed every year.

    Similarly, with these fish there must be parental stock, but users won’t recover the parental stock from the production progeny. You can count on the patent holders to guard that parent stock very carefully indeed. I expect it will be held even more closely than hybrid corn parent lines are.

    1. “Similarly, with these fish there must be parental stock, but users won’t recover the parental stock from the production progeny.”

      The various bad-effect scenarios don’t require attempts to recover the parental stock to work, merely for those attempts to be made. And there’s even a worst-of-both worlds scenario (though unlikely): GM escapees outcompete some local population for a couple of seasons, preventing them from breeding and spawning in adequate numbers, and then fail to breed themselves.

      The problem with this idea, as with so many other approvals of environmentally-dicey intensive production practices, is that it assumes everyone will play by the rules once approval is given, and that all the players will be highly competent and well-capitalized. And then you get another “No one could have anticipated that…”

      1. Paul,

        I wasn’t referring to the escape of the parental stock. I was responding to JMG’s suggestion that if these fish are genetically superior for aquaculture, they will acquire legs (from humans) and disappear. The reproductive barriers in the genetics of the production fish seem to preclude that. Any stolen production fish will carry the genetic package but will also be barely fertile.

        Given what they’ve done with these fish, I’d say that your worst-case scenario is actually a most-likely bad outcome scenario.

        Prior to approval, it would be really nice to know what has happened to prior aquaculture escapees. Do they go out like lambs and provide an easy meal for someone, or are some of them tough enough to survive. If they survive to sexual maturity, where do they go to breed? No fresh water means no breeding for these guys doesn’t it?

        1. They’re born in some kind of fresh water. So if/when they come back from the ocean, would they be looking for water that matches the signature of what they hatched in?

          Oh, and is “barely fertile” infertile enough to stop reproduction, given the fact that farming pretty much cuts out the usual attrition level? (That’s not rhetorical; I’m wondering how many fewer viable sperm/eggs you’d need to make difficult-to-overcome hurdle.)

  5. “Yes, it would be better to change the rules about fishing to be able to raise fish efficiently in the ocean, but that ain’t gonna happen.”

    Will the real tragedy please stand up.

  6. In other words, there should be no problems as long as long as the humans involved are competent and follow the rules and the breeding performance of the GM fish is as predicted, but that ain’t gonna happen.

  7. Illegal fish stocking is an ongoing problem. The fertile version of these fish will exist somewhere.

    Mainly though I think Sven has it right, this is an attempt to pry open the door in other countries. Hopefully they won’t use it as an excuse for a regulatory race to the bottom.

  8. There are at least two reasons why FrankenFish is a terrible idea:

    1) They’re expensive and not good for us. Fertile or not, what our food eats makes a huge difference in how good for us that food is. Farmed salmon is to wild salmon as feed-lot cattle is to grass-fed cattle; the second is healthy food while the first is not. Consider; we might accidentally genetically engineer out essential nutrients that we don’t yet know we need-after all, we’ve only known about vitamins for about a century. The incidences of autism, asthma, and Alzheimer’s have been increasing dramatically, for example, and we don’t yet know why that is.

    2) Wild stocks inevitably get contaminated by genetically engineered stocks. Always. Natural selection combines with unintended consequences to change natural ecosystems in very scary ways. Who knows if wild-and/or-stolen-escapees might manage to produce hybrid wild offspring that outcompete or ruin important wild fish stocks, from the salmon themselves to their food fish or predator fish all along the food chain. Also, we might accidentally engineer new diseases and/or susseptibilities to disease in the frankenfish, or in wild stocks that get contaminated by them. We are losing many wild and domestic seed stocks and varieties because they are no longer being grown. And we do know that the great success of “Roundup Ready” GMO corn and soybeans have caused weeds to evolve that are immune to Roundup herbicides, and these are causing real and increasing problems to farmers in the USA. We also know there are super blights that are devastating GMO crops in some places, that could potentially cause worldwide famine if it spreads and cannot be fought with new genetic modifications and/or the use of other seed stocks.


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