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Why the fuss about GM salmon? The impact of AquAdvantage on Indigenous Populations

What is genetically modified (GM) salmon?

Genetically modified salmon are salmon that have had their genetic material mixed with genes from a number of different species. The effect of this manipulation is to double their growth rate and to enable these salmon to grow year-round. The GM salmon was first developed and patented by AquaBounty Technologies, an American biotechnology firm based in Maynard, Massachusetts (although their original patent expired on 13 August 2013). These salmon are commercially labelled as AquAdvantage.

“GM salmon is the first genetically modified meat in the world.” – Ecology Action Centre

Environment Canada approved the commercial production of GM Atlantic salmon in 2013. In November 2015, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved GM salmon for human consumption in the US. In May 2016, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) followed the US decision. Today, GM salmon is the first genetically modified animal food in the world.

Since their approval, GM salmon have attracted considerable public attention and debate. For the general population, the major concern seems to be over the Canadian government’s refusal to label the product so that consumers can tell it apart from non-GM salmon stock. In 2016, the House of Commons rejected a private member’s bill, Bill C-291, which called for genetically-modified food to be labelled. In Canada, food labelling is only required where the food poses a health risk, or if nutritional qualities have been significantly changed. According to the reports from Health Canada and CFIA, “thorough and rigorous scientific reviews” were conducted on the safety of AquAdvantage Salmon. The reviews concluded that AquaAdvantage Salmon was just as “safe and nutritious for humans and livestock as conventional salmon.” Nevertheless, anti-GMO groups continue to call the GM Salmon “frankenfish” despite CFIA’s approval and have launched a “Say No to Frankenfish” campaign.

For Canada’s Indigenous population, there are more pressing concerns than labelling – the impact of GM salmon on wild salmon sustainability.

GM salmon, sustainability, and Indigenous peoples

Many of North America’s Indigenous peoples rely on salmon as a vital food source. A member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, an Indigenous tribe in the United States, says “the Coast Salish people have organized their lives around salmon for thousands of years.” While higher salmon biodiversity can lead to higher catch stability and temporal availability of salmon for Indigenous peoples, there has been considerable controversy over GM salmon’s sustainability in North America. This is despite AquaBounty’s belief in sustainable seafood production.

Currently, AquAdvantage Salmon can only be raised in land-based contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada and Panama. AquBounty will be producing the GM salmon eggs in Canadian land-based facilities located in Prince Edward Island, to later ship them to Panama to be raised to maturity in inland tanks. Once processed, the GM salmon will be shipped to the US and Canada for human consumption. While the GM salmon are all female and sterile, Ecology Action Centre believes there are still risks posed to the environment if any of these fish escape into the wild.

In a report published on this issue, Ecology Action Centre emphasized one frightening risk – that escaped GM salmon might out-compete wild salmon for food, potentially reducing population growth rates. The more worrisome risk is a fundamental change to the already endangered wild Atlantic salmon population. While all production is in land-based facilities only, AquaBounty’s facilities in Panama have already been accused of repeated violation of regulations. In the past, the Panama facility operated without the necessary permits concerning the use of water and pollution of the local environment.

As AquAdvantage is the first GM animal food, it can still be considered a sort of pilot project for future GM products. There is thus no guarantee that future violations will not occur or that GM salmon will not escape from confinement. Notwithstanding the sustainability concerns, GM salmon poses a threat to the identity of Indigenous peoples.

GM salmon, an attack on the identity of Indigenous peoples?

For Indigenous people of North America, corporate ownership of a cultural keystone is perceived as a direct attack on their identity and the legacy of their ancestors.

Muckleshoot Indian Tribe of the United States defends the view that “…absent indisputable evidence that there is no harm in human consumption, wild fish habitat or the treaty-protected fishing rights of Northwest Indians the FDA must not permit the promised increase of production efficiency to trump sound science or fishing rights and culture of Northwest Indians.” The same is equally true for the Coast Salish people and other Indigenous groups for whom salmon is both a cultural symbol and a vital food source.

“From time immemorial salmon has been central to the culture, religion and society of Northwest Indian people,” – Virginia Cross, Muckleshoot Tribal Council Chair

For the Coast Salish people of Canada, salmon are symbolic of the Stó:lō’s (People of the River) connection to Mother Earth and reflect a healthy relationship between mind, body and spirit. Salmon preparation plays an especially important role in social gatherings and ceremonies.

Coast Salish laws therefore prohibits depleting salmon stocks. A member of the Stó:lō, Patricia Kelly explains the law this way: “When that certain bloom on that tree comes out, we know that a certain fish is in the water. That’s our law. And when that bloom is gone, you stop fishing and you allow what’s remaining in the water to continue on to be abundant. Nature makes the laws and we live within the laws respectfully.”

“School of Salmon”, North Coast Native Art Salmon, (7 May 2009)

In the United States, for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), salmon is equally symbolic. Virginia Cross, Muckleshoot Tribal Council Chair, asserts that “From time immemorial salmon has been central to the culture, religion and society of Northwest Indian people.” The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the ATNI have been calling on the FDA to deny the application for GM salmon to be introduced to the US food market pending a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS) and further scientific review, in addition to consultation with the Northwest Treaty Tribes.

So far, the only positive step that occurred was in regard to potential stricter regulations. The Minister of Environmental and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, confirmed that if AquaBounty Technologies plans to expand their AquAdvantage salmon at Rollo Bay, PEI, (a new location, different from their approved site at Bay Fortune) they will be subject to strict requirements. However, the nature of these requirements is yet to be determined.

Andrea Lesperance is a Research Assistant with ABS Canada. Andrea is currently completing her Juris Doctor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. In 2014, Andrea graduated from the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Earth and Environmental Science with Honours. She has focused her academic scholarship on contemporary Indigenous issues and resource management. Andrea previously worked in community development within South African townships.

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