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The extraordinary security around GMO salmon

Tony Wagner Nov 23, 2015

The public comment period around AquAdvantage Salmon starts Tuesday, and given that it’s the first genetically-engineered fish declared fit to eat by the FDA, those comments are likely to be lively.

The FDA has already accepted comments around the environmental impacts of breeding these fish. The biggest environmental concern is escape: what happens if these extra-large GMO fish get out into the wild and disrupt the habitat of other salmon, or start reproducing? Along with its approval Thursday, the FDA issued its final environmental assessment and gave detailed responses to these concerns and showed just how much security goes into making sure these fish get out dead (preferably served with lemon, dill and asparagus) or not at all.

First, and perhaps most relevant to the environment of the U.S.: the fish aren’t here. A few thousand salmon lay eggs at a facility on Canada’s Prince Edward Island and those eggs are shipped to Panama, where they’re raised to full size. Both facilities use large above-ground tanks instead of cages or nets out in open water.

The FDA has inspected these facilities — as have regulators in Canada and Panama — and noted that escape is all but impossible. The tanks have drains that lead to open water, but they all have several plastic and steel mesh screens. Even if all the screens failed and fish staged a daring escape, they’d find water that’s either too hot or too salty to survive. On Prince Edward Island, the drained water is chlorinated to kill any tiny eggs that could sneak through. The facility has tight security for humans, to keep anyone from smuggling out a cooler full of eggs, “Jurassic Park”-style.

Also like “Jurassic Park”, all the fish in Panama are female and infertile,  the FDA said. So even if a fish got out of its tank, through the screens and toughed it out in inhospitable conditions, it wouldn’t be able to breed.

The FDA also noted that if any fish tried the same thing in Canada, they probably wouldn’t find any other salmon to breed with — they’re endangered.

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