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Eggs that will hatch into genetically modified salmon arrive in U.S.

By Jessie Higgins
Eggs that will hatch into genetically modified salmon arrive in U.S.
Genetically modified Atlantic salmon swim in a hatchery tank in Canada. The first batch of GMO salmon eggs arrived in the United States on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of  AquAdvantage

EVANSVILLE, Ind., May 30 (UPI) -- Eggs to grow the first genetically engineered salmon for human consumption in the United States arrived this week in Indiana.

The salmon eggs, owned by AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts, were shipped from the company's Canadian hatchery to one in Albany, Ind. The company hopes to begin harvesting in late 2020, spokesman Dave Conley said.

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This is the first time a genetically modified food animal will be raised and sold in the United States. The work is being done by AquaBounty Farms.

The fish were engineered in the late 1980s by scientists at Canada's Memorial University to grow more rapidly than wild salmon.

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Scientists accomplished this by adding a gene from the faster-growing Chinook salmon and another promoter gene from an ocean pout -- an eel-like fish found in the northwest Atlantic Ocean -- that essentially keeps the salmon's growth hormone turned on.

"They grew amazingly fast," Garth Fletcher, the scientist who created the salmon, told UPI in March.

The fish grow to market size in 16 to 18 months. By comparison, wild salmon take 28 to 36 months, according to AquaBounty.

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Fletcher, who now heads the Ocean Science Department at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, began working with AquaBounty in the 1990s to obtain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for commercial production. The hope was that producing faster-growing fish would ease the burden on wild-caught salmon, whose populations are declining due to overfishing, Fletcher said.

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Many Native American and environmental groups fought the approval. Calling the animal "Frankenfish," the groups raised concerns about the impact they could have on native salmon populations and the tribes who fish them.

"Our sacred and prized wild salmon is now even more vulnerable to external markets and ecological threats," Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, said in a statement. "It's unconscionable and arrogant to think man can improve upon our creator's perfection in wild salmon as a justification and excuse to satisfy corporate ambition and greed."

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Opponents also worried that the genetically engineered fish could harm human health.

The FDA eventually determined the fish posed no environmental or human health danger and approved production in 2015.

"It took 20 years to get it through the FDA," Fletcher said. "I never thought it would take so long. We were just the first company to take the product through the process. Once one has gone through it, though, it makes it easier for everybody else."

But, before production could begin, Congress stopped the company from importing the salmon while regulators created labeling guidelines for genetically modified animals that would be used for human consumption.

Those guidelines were issued late last year with the enactment of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which mandates that companies state when a food is "bioengineered."

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The FDA lifted an import ban on the salmon March 8.

"This fish is safe to eat, the genetic construct added to the fish's genome is safe for the animal, and the manufacturer's claim that it reaches a growth marker important to the aquaculture industry more rapidly than its non-GE farm-raised Atlantic salmon counterpart is confirmed," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement at that time.

It took several months for the company, which operates in the United States and Canada, to receive the necessary permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ship eggs from its Canadian hatchery.

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