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The curious case of American Aquafarms’ planned use of gene-altered salmon smolts

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

State gives Norwegian firm unlimited time to resolve illegal import problem

By Lincoln Millstein

December 24, 2021

The Quiestside Journal

SOMESVILLE, Dec. 24, 2021- Is the state considering changing its regulations to allow genetically-altered salmon to be imported into Maine?

The Department of Marine Resources discovered in August that American Aquafarms was planning to use genetically-engineered smolts from a hatchery in Newfoundland which was not on the state’s approved list of sources for imported fish.

In September, DMR gave American Aquafarms 30 days to show that the proposed smolts to be farmed in Frenchman Bay will come from a “qualified source” or the state could not proceed with its lease applications.

Just as summarily, the state lifted that deadline to give AA indefinite time to work out the problem.

“At this time, there is not a specific deadline by which American Aquafarms must submit information regarding their proposed source of eggs/smolts,” DMR aquaculture director Marcy Nelson wrote in a Dec. 7 email obtained by QSJ.

“As I’ve mentioned in previous correspondence, DMR does not intend to advance the applications by American Aquafarms any further in the process until we have received the required information regarding their proposed source hatchery, and made a determination that the source meets the standards of DMR Regulations Chapter 24.”

Chapter 24 regulations have very specific requirements with regard to pathogen screening and history at any hatchery proposed as a source of Atlantic salmon for the type of net-pen farming proposed by AA.

“Given the extent of the current and historical screening data required, the Department will allow a reasonable amount of time for the applicant and hatchery to compile that information,” Nelson wrote.

The use of gene-altered smolts is a new wrinkle in the multi-faceted effort by the Norwegian-backed AA to build two massive salmon farms in Frenchman Bay, which is opposed by more than 20 organizations and municipalities, including Acadia National Park.

Opponents have argued on the grounds of environmental, aesthetic and navigational concerns, and threats to existing fisheries.

The import of genetically-altered salmon is one issue that even the Maine Aquaculture Association, the industry trade association, opposes.

The company listed as a source for American Aquafarms, AquaBounty, is a Massachusetts-based biotech firm whose fish is being boycotted by multiple suppliers, stores and restaurants.

In February, giant supplier Aramark joined other foodservice leaders, Compass Group and Sodexo, as well as Legal Seafoods and a growing list of domestic retailers, seafood companies and restaurants to boycott AquaBounty’s products.

“Reiterating our previously stated opposition to genetically engineered (GE) salmon, we will not purchase it should it come to market. Avoiding potential impacts to wild salmon populations and indigenous communities, whose livelihoods are deeply connected to and often dependent upon this vital resource, is core to our company’s commitment to making a positive impact on people and the planet,” Aramark's policy stated.

AquaBounty’s fish are modified with added genes from other fish to grow about twice as fast as conventional salmon.

“This faster pace of life due to genetic contamination is bad news because it is linked to a whole suite of traits that make salmon less well adapted to their environment, such as increased boldness and aggression,” said Geir Bolstad of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Trondheim. “Studies have found that the offspring of farmed salmon are less likely to survive as juveniles in the wild, in part because they are more susceptible to predators.”

Bolstad says that as long as the flow of genes continues, “it will by all probability decline the population figures because it makes the population on average maladapted.”

The Bangor Daily News reported in 2019 that fish farmers in Maine are not considering using the genetically-engineered fish.

Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said, “Our competitors would have to be using them and that would have to be giving our competitors an advantage in the marketplace. We have no interest in growing GMO salmon, but we reserve the right to reassess that position.”

Numerous conditions would have to be met before that would change, including customers requesting the fish in stores, he said. The group also feels the environmental assessment of the fish conducted by regulators was not rigorous enough, Belle said.

DMR and AA did not return email questions from QSJ.

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