A federal judge has ruled that the production of the world’s first genetically modified salmon was permitted without the required environmental risk assessment.
The ruling, from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, says the Food and Drug Administration violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act when it approved a plan of AquaBounty, based in Massachusetts, in 2015.
“In a nutshell, the court has sent the FDA back to the drawing board to re-examine the environmental risks posed by genetically modified salmon,” said Steve Mashuda, Seattle-based attorney at Earthjustice and co-attorney for the plaintiffs.
The company produces Atlantic salmon that has been engineered to grow up to twice as fast as conventionally farmed fish, by adding genes from Pacific chinook and eel pout. The fish are reared in tanks in Indiana, from eggs grown in a facility in Prince Edward Island, Canada.
A coalition of anti-GMO and fish advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against FDA approval in 2016. Mashuda says he is concerned about AquaBounty’s expansion plans.
“He didn’t really come into this operation as a salmon farming proposition,” he said. “He came in because he would like to be able to sell these eggs to existing salmon farms around the world, including here – potentially – in Puget Sound.”
West Coast concerns are focused on British Columbia, where there are many Atlantic salmon farms. Washington State also has a robust seafood industry, including many players who aspire to net-pen farming, despite recent incidents at Cooke Aquaculture. The decision directs the FDA to re-analyze the risks of accidental release or leakage of the modified fish.
That was good news for Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp, who was also elected president of the National Congress of American Indians last year. She says federal officials never consulted the tribes on the decision to alter these salmon. And they dragged their feet throughout the case.
“I was thrilled,” she said of her reaction when she read the ruling. “It took multiple court rulings just to get some basic information about their deliberative process – and every week to get a positive ruling against an administration that didn’t consult the tribes…I was so happy !”
She says her country joined the lawsuit as quickly as possible in 2016. They were already concerned about genetically modified foods and the lack of labeling in the United States.
“But then the idea that a company would design our most precious and sacred resource, our salmon,” she said. “So there is no question and no doubt in my mind that we had to do everything we could to push back the FDA approval.”
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria did not overturn the FDA’s approval of the salmon for human consumption, allowing that to continue while the environmental review is redone. He said the risk of short-term environmental damage is low.
AquaBounty’s CEO said in an emailed statement that the company was disappointed with parts of the decision, but remained confident and would work with the FDA on next steps and “continue to evaluate the legal decision.” His fish is not yet sold in the United States
“This decision will not impact our ongoing operations in Prince Edward Island, Canada, to produce eggs or the farming and sale of AquAdvantage salmon from our farm in the United States. Indiana,” the statement read. “The future of our domestic and global food supply will depend on innovation and technology and AquaBounty remains true to its commitment to lead that charge.”