Genetically engineered salmon: An update on how they are growing in Albany

Genetically engineered salmon: An update on how they are growing in Albany

 

Non-genetically altered Atlantic salmon are raised in tanks at AquaBounty Technologies in Albany. The company began raising unmodified Atlantic salmon at the facility while waiting for FDA approval to transport genetically modified eggs across the Canadian border.  (Photo: Jordan Kartholl/The Star Press)

 

ALBANY, Ind. — The first batch of genetically engineered salmon eggs that arrived here in May/June has made it from the hatchery into nursery tanks the size of backyard swimming pools and then into grow-out tanks that hold up to 70,000 gallons of water apiece.

The formerly threadlike salmon, the size of the end of your thumbnail, had grown to a length of about 8½ inches and a weight of around 60 grams (about two ounces) by early December and is increasing in size daily, according to AquaBounty Farms-Indiana owner AquaBounty Technologies.

“The first cohort of AquAdvantage Salmon that hatched in our Albany farm in June are healthy and growing well,” AquaBounty spokesman Dave Conley told The Star Press via email.

The fish, engineered to grow faster than conventional Atlantic salmon, are attracting attention because they’re the first genetically modified animals approved for human consumption in the U.S.

The fish were mentioned Dec. 20 by U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., when he recapped the farm and agribusiness stops he made in the Hoosier state, including Albany, during 2019.

Young learned about regulatory challenges facing the fish from fellow Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who reportedly has used riders to single-handedly block genetically engineered (GE) salmon for years. Murkowski’s office told The Star Press her efforts are all about ensuring clear labeling of GE salmon before they go to market.

The batch of conventional Atlantic salmon that AquaBounty started farming in June of 2018 is growing well and is expected to be harvested beginning in the third quarter of  2020, followed by the first harvest of the GE AquAdvantage Salmon in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to Conley.

A second batch of AquAdvantage Salmon eggs arrived at the land-based farm in Albany in mid-October, has now hatched and is almost ready to be moved to the nursery for their first feeding.

 

 

 

AquaBounty Technologies CEO Sylvia Wulf talks  to reporters at the company’s Albany facility. (Photo: Seth Slabaugh, The Star Press)

 

 

 

Sylvia Wulf, AquaBounty’s CEO, said in a prepared statement: “We are thrilled with the progress of our salmon at our Indiana farm. The fish are growing extremely well, and they look fantastic.”

In its most recent quarterly report, AquaBounty notes that its AquAdvantage salmon remains the subject of a federal lawsuit pending in the northern district of California, brought by Friends of the Earth and other plaintiffs, versus the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Issues include the risk of AquAdvantage Salmon escaping and threatening endangered wild salmon stocks.

But last month, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ruled in favor of the FDA, writing, “The lawsuit is both a broadside attack on the FDA’s authority to regulate the genetic engineering of animals and a targeted attack on the particular process by which the agency approved the salmon.”

(Netting covers the Albany farm’s nursery fish tanks to prevent the salmon from jumping out. If any got through the netting, they would land on a concrete floor that drains to a trench containing screens to prevent them from advancing.

(As the fish grow in size and move to larger tanks, they encounter a number of screens, filters, gates, grates and cages to prevent an escape into the wild — the chances of which AquaBounty says are zero. But even if a breakout occurred, the fish couldn’t breed, the company says, because they’re all sterilized females).

FDA has approved the production of the GE salmon eggs in a hatchery in Canada and the grow-out of the eggs in Albany.

The quarterly report also notes that legislative action could result in restrictions on or delays in commercialization of the GE salmon: “We could be subject to increasing or more onerous regulatory hurdles as we attempt to commercialize our product, which could require us to incur significant additional capital and operating expenditures and other costs in complying with these laws and regulations.

Murkowski included a provision within the Agriculture Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2020 to postpone the introduction of GE salmon to the U.S. market until a consumer label comprehension study is completed, to determine the effectiveness of USDA’s new labeling guidelines for bioengineered foods, the senator’s spokesperson, Karina Borger, told The Star Press earlier this month.

That bill advanced out of the full Appropriations Committee unanimously and then passed in the full Senate at the end of October as part of a funding package.

“Her efforts are all about ensuring clear labeling of GE salmon before they go to the U.S. market,” Borger went on. “Murkowski has said we owe it to American consumers to ensure that the standards put in place for labeling GE salmon are clear, effective, and understandable. Murkowski believes that a clear, text-based label is the high standard that American consumers deserve, and has also introduced stand-alone legislation to that effect. That bill is the Genetically Engineered Salmon Labeling Act.”

 

Sen. Todd Young talks to AquaBounty’s Peter Bowyer during a tour. (Photo: Jordan Kartholl / The Star Press)

 

 

 

 

 

Sen. Young and fellow Hoosier Sen. Mike Braun have said in a letter the legislation would set “a troubling precedent regarding the function and authority of federal regulatory agencies. There are a great number of important agriculture innovations in the research, development and regulatory pipeline behind the bioengineered salmon. To effectively ban a first-in-class product for no legitimate reason will cast a chilling effect on the willingness or ability of other researchers and developers to invest in the United States.”

Responding to Murkowski’s position, Wulf, the CEO of AquaBounty, told The Star Press, “The senator’s feigned attempt at consumer concern is a smokescreen for her decade-long campaign to financially cripple a small company with an innovative way to combat the negative effects of climate change, which is a more significant threat to Alaska’s salmon fishery than a faster-growing salmon. Putting 30 people out of work in Indiana will not solve her problem.”

Because fresh and frozen fish are flown to markets all over the world, seafood has a large carbon footprint, AquaBounty says, adding that its AquAdvantage Salmon can be grown in land-based facilities built closer to consumers to reduce the need for energy-intensive air freight shipping and transportation.

In September, the farm hosted a visit from Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, which in turn was hosting a group of Turkish government regulators through a United States Department of Agriculture-funded program.

Since July 1, AquaBounty Farms-Indiana has hired 22 new people to work at the Albany farm, which now employs 30, according to Conley, who added the new hires come from backgrounds in manufacturing, security and teaching. Some are recent Ball State graduates.

The farm also has added a lot of new equipment, including an automobile disinfecting system to improve bio-security, and has worked with local companies on farm improvements, including Versatile Metal Works of Muncie, which designed and fabricated fish handling equipment.

Fish manure is being spread as fertilizer on local crops.

The farm hosted a presentation for the town of Albany at the farm in October and sponsored a carriage ride for the Albany Christmas Festival on Dec. 8.

 

Non-genetically altered Atlantic salmon are raised in tanks at AquaBounty Technologies in Albany. The company began raising unmodified Atlantic salmon at the facility while waiting for FDA approval to transport genetically modified eggs across the Canadian border.  (Photo: Jordan Kartholl/The Star Press) 

 

 

 

Contact Seth Slabaugh at (765) 213-5834 or seths@muncie.gannett.com

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