What will the world inherit from GM salmon – the death of the wild oceans?

We provide here the text, with a Marinet comment as a footnote, of an article published 12th May 2014 by Dr. Gerry Goeden in the Independent Science News. The title of the original article is: What will the world inherit from GM salmon?

Dr. Goeden [biographical details below] states: “It’s true — about 50 percent of the fish we eat are farmed. There is good reason for this as, one by one, the world’s commercial fisheries collapse through overfishing. According to FAO (2010) [UN Food and Agricultural Organisation], 70% of the world’s large commercial fisheries have either failed or are not far from it.

When things started to go wrong with world fisheries, fish farming was hailed as the ultimate solution. Fish could be produced cheaply and pressure removed from wild stocks. It seemed like the perfect solution to a very big problem.

Salmon are one of the world’s most desirable fishes and incredibly predictable in their behaviour. Eggs are laid at high altitude in clear freshwater mountain streams. After a stay of up to three years the young salmon move out to the sea to mature. Most are caught when they return to the same river they hatched in, which they find by following a remarkable olfactory memory.

Early versions of fish farming followed an oceanic ranching model. Hatcheries produced salmon fry for release into rivers and allowed them to mature at sea. When the hatchery-produced salmon returned to spawn after 1-5 years at sea, they literally swam back into the factory that produced them, to become tomorrow’s fresh fish. Ocean ranching still goes on but has declined or in some cases been halted due to low return rates and, more recently, regulation.

Farmed salmon differ from ocean ranched salmon in that they are not allowed to mature at sea. Instead they are kept and fed in offshore cages guaranteeing a better return rate and rapid growth.

Official FAO statistics report that commercial wild salmon catches have remained fairly steady since 1990 at about one million tonnes per year. This is in contrast to farmed salmon which has increased in the same period from about 0.6 million tonnes to well over two million tonnes.

This farm production of salmon is incredibly efficient and incredibly profitable. However, as lead researcher Prof Matt Gage from the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences has said, “Around 95% of all salmon in existence are farmed, and domestication has made them very different to wild populations” (Yeates et al. 2014). Which means that farmed salmon have the potential to genetically swamp the wild stocks.

On the face of it this didn’t seem like a problem. Because salmon return to their original stream, each stream has its own genetic type or stock that has evolved to meet the specific conditions of that river system. Norway is home to the world’s most varied wild salmon stocks, with genetically distinct groups found in the country’s 452 different wild salmon rivers. But since 1971, Norwegian wild salmon stocks have diminished by roughly 80 per cent. Ten percent of that country’s salmon rivers have lost their populations entirely.

Explaining the crash of wild salmon populations.

Back in 1971, aquaculture scientists started scouting 40 of Norway’s best wild salmon rivers to find the ultimate genetic combination for farming. These “designer” fish, selected for their ability to grow rapidly and use food efficiently, formed the breeding lines that by 2007 would, some 10 salmon generations later, support a US$3 billion Norwegian industry. Salmon farming had become a machine for printing money.

The future seemed to be bright. Salmon stocks were flourishing and hatcheries were producing well over 170 million “designer” salmon per year. But not all followed the rules. In 2007 alone, 450,000 Norwegian salmon escaped their destiny with the processing machines and this leakage of hatchery fish into wild stocks has been going on for 40 years. At the same time an estimated 470,000 wild Atlantic salmon were using the same rivers and breeding freely with the farmed strains.

In 2006, researchers Christian Roberge and Louis Bernatchez found evidence that farmed salmon had been evolving differently to wild stocks. These findings finally provided the necessary support for the suspicion that farm escapees could hybridize with wild fish and speed their decline (Roberge et al. 2006).

Many Norwegian rivers nowadays have as much as 50% hatchery salmon mixed into the returning catch. Because these hatchery fish are selected to grow faster, are aggressive, and are not as clever at avoiding predators as wild stocks, there is grave concern that interbreeding is reducing the fitness of wild salmon.

Jennifer Ford and Ransom Myers followed the survival of wild salmon in five regions around the world (Ford and Myers 2008). They found that exposure to hatchery-bred populations greatly reduced their success. Wild populations experienced a reduction in abundance of more than 50%, seriously compromising their stocks.

In 2008 US Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez declared a commercial fishery failure for the west coast salmon due to historically low numbers triggered by environmental conditions (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2008). Hundreds of thousands of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) typically return to the Sacramento River every year to spawn. At the time of the collapse, scientists estimate that fewer than 60,000 adult Chinook made it back to the Sacramento River. The fishery was closed until it could recover.

By 2012 and following the fishery failure, scientists had found that only about 10 percent of Chinook salmon spawning in California’s Mokelumne River were wild stock. The wild fish had been ‘over-run’ by hungrier and faster growing hatchery fish and were now heading for extinction. Published in the journal, PLoS ONE (Johnson, et al. 2012), the study said that there were no longer enough wild fish to maintain the population.

A 2009 report from Oregon State University researchers found that steelhead trout (a close relative of salmon) were now so genetically impaired that they were unable to reproduce enough to survive (see Araki et al 2007). It was only the huge hatchery output of young fish that kept ‘topping-up’ the stocks and giving the impression that all was well.

We have been flooding the rivers and oceans with voracious, fast growing fish that rob wild stocks of food and deplete their numbers. But the hatchery fish depend on us to make up for their weaknesses and inability to maintain their own abundance.

This is fine for making money. But the day we close down a hatchery the salmon in that river may be lost forever. They aren’t natural; like chickens, we have “designed” them and they can no longer exist without our continuing involvement.

There may one day be a solution. A project carried out at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science and the Institute of Marine Research looked at the use of sterile salmon in aquaculture to prevent the disastrous interbreeding of hatchery salmon and wild salmon. By producing triploid fish for the farms, escapees are thought to be rendered sterile. But disappointingly for the project, researchers found deformities and reduced temperature tolerance made the fish less suitable for farming. This solution is not just around the corner.

And now what’s next for salmon?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing the first genetically engineered (GE) animal for human consumption. And it’s a salmon. Produced by AquaBounty, this transgenic fish adds genetic material from a pacific Chinook salmon and an eelpout (Zoarces americanus) to cause Atlantic salmon to greatly overproduce its own growth hormones. The new fish will grow two to six times faster during winter than wild stock and be ready to harvest at an earlier age.

By November 2013, Canada had announced that it would support the export of AquaBounty’s GE eggs to Panama. The decision marked the first time any government had given the go-ahead to commercial scale production involving a GE food animal. The FDA has yet to rule on the GE fish.

To date AquaBounty has spent about $60 million trying to coax the FDA and public into accepting their product. Within the last year, supermarket chains including Whole Foods, Kroger, Safeway, Aldi, and Trader Joe’s have said they will not stock the GE salmon.

What we must keep in mind is that this animal has never existed before; it is new to the planet; we made it. We really have no idea of what it will do when we lift it off the ‘operating table’.

The FDA states that highly secure facilities will prevent GE salmon from escaping and affecting natural ecosystems. We are told that they won’t be able to breed because they are all going to be females; each and every one of them. The GE salmon will also be made infertile to prevent breeding with natural stock should some fish escape. (Actually it’s reportedly 99.7% infertile which means thousands of breeding fish out of the millions produced).

The future of the wild salmon stocks couldn’t be bleaker. Norway is losing half a million “designer” salmon a year from ‘secure’ farms, wild stocks in Europe and the US are collapsing, yet this new fish supposedly can’t escape and even if it does, none of the millions of fish AquaBounty produces will interbreed with wild fish.

Craig Altier, a member of the FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee and an associate professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University said, “We need to treat these (GE) fish as we would a potentially dangerous medicine or pharmaceutical, and apply all of the same security measures to its production and transport.”

Fredrik Sundström (1st September, 2009) at the Department of Zoology, University of Gothenburg, Sweden says, “If transgenic fish become established in natural stocks they would be able to out-compete the natural breeds”. His work shows that AquaBounty fish would have a considerably greater impact on the natural environment than the hatchery-reared non-GE fish that are already wrecking havoc on wild stocks.

In itself, increasing the production of salmon is good for people and the economy. But it hasn’t so far been good for the environment. Because we have decided not to let nature do the ‘selecting’, the salmon we have been breeding are weak and dependent. They pose a real threat to the existence of some of the world’s most valuable fish. With the new AquaBounty GE salmon we will move further into uncharted waters; waters that soon may be filled only with salmon unable to exist without us.

Source: Independent Science News, 12th May 2014 http://www.independentsciencenews.org/environment/what-will-the-world-inherit-from-ge-salmon/
 

Biographical information: Dr. Gerry Goeden is a Malaysian based marine ecologist, Research Fellow and Adviser to the National University of Malaysia, and marine consultant to the Andaman resort, Langkawi. Born in the USA, he migrated to Australia where he worked on the Great Barrier Reef in fisheries research and marine park management. He is now ‘semi-retired’, and leads conservation projects in South East Asia.

Marinet observes: Dr. Goeden asks: What will the world will inherit from GM salmon? As we see things, the answer is clear. If we eliminate wild salmon because “farmed” salmon (genetically bred to differ from wild salmon) and GM salmon (genetically altered to carry genes from other species) are able to breed with wild salmon, thus altering the ocean salmon gene pool and making the wild ocean salmon less able to meet the struggle for survival in the ocean, then essentially we are changing the fundamental nature of the oceans.

This fundamental change lies not just in the loss of a wild species. It is deeper and more significant than that. The fate of wild salmon, as a species surviving in the wild, is mirrored elsewhere. Many fish species, particularly carnivorous species e.g. tuna and cod, are heavily over-fished and their populations are similarly threatened with extinction. Some populations are already effectively extinct. What is mankind’s response? As in case of salmon, it is to revert to farming of these species and, as in the case of salmon, the character of their gene make-up will be altered by man to make the species adaptable to the needs of farming needs and its methods — all mostly driven by the need to maximise economic return and financial profit.

As this reality takes hold, the oceans will become progressively populated by versions of fish species designed by man. Thus the oceans will progressively lose their wild nature and, like their terrestrial counterpart, will have become a vast farm — in this case covering the two-thirds of the planet that presently remains untamed by man.

In this version of the future the oceans will no longer contain wild species and wild populations which are harvested. They will contain man-designed species which are farmed, and which graze and eat — like farm animals — the wild species that have not yet been altered, or indeed modified versions of these wild species which, as necessary, man will also introduce in order to sustain the primary farmed species.

Consequently we will have chosen to make the oceans into one vast, planetary-sized farm, and Earth will have become wholly subordinate to the needs and dictates of mankind in the pursuit of its own survival.

The planet will no longer contain species with natural rights. All species will be subordinate to man. The “natural world” will have effectively died.

There is only one way out of this scenario — let’s be more honest, rapidly approaching reality — and that is to grant primacy in law, via the UN Law of the Sea, to the natural rights of the oceans, and to make man subordinate to the needs of the oceans rather than dominant and supreme as is currently the case. In short, we change the fundamental paradigm for the management of the oceans.

Marinet will shortly be publishing a major work which advances and carefully explains the logic and principles of this alternative. In our view, it is the only way we can avoid the type of world rapidly descending upon us, the planet, and all other species living here. We will be making an announcement about this shortly.


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