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Challenging genetically-modified salmon

Eyed salmon eggs. Photo: AquaBounty

Living Oceans is took part in a legal challenge against the Government of Canada to block the commercial production of genetically modified (GM) salmon. With no public debate, the government approved the manufacture in P.E.I. and export of AquaBounty’s GM salmon eggs to Panama where they are grown into fish destined for sale in the U.S. and Canadian markets. Both governments approved the fish for human consumption, making this the first GM food animal in the world.

AquaBounty initially said they would send the eggs from PEI to Panama for grow-out and processing, however, the company has already commenced building a grow-out facility at Rollo Bay in PEI.

Ecojustice lawyers represented us in court, challenging the decisions of the Health and Environment Ministers, arguing that the approval was unlawful because it failed to assess whether GM salmon could become invasive, potentially putting wild salmon and entire ecosystems at risk (DFO risk assessment summary). Ecojustice provides lawyers’ services without charge.

We wanted to stop the production of GM salmon because of the risk they pose to wild salmon populations which are already under pressure worldwide. Farmed fish escapees from open net-pens and hatcheries are a serious, ongoing problem that threatens wild fish. Government reviews have indicated that GM salmon may be able to survive and breed in the wild. We already know that both feral juvenile Atlantic salmon as well as mature escaped non-GM farmed Atlantic salmon have been found in B.C. streams.

We were also concerned that the federal risk assessment (which was not made available to the public until more than a year after we sued, and then only in heavily redacted form) did not take a careful look at human health impacts. The science provided by Aquabounty to back its claims of safety was heavily criticized by a U.S. peer review panel, because, among other issues, the sample sizes of 6-7 fish were far too low to draw reliable conclusions and some samples had been cherry-picked. Even at that, there was evidence of elevated growth hormones in the GM product. Too little is known about the health implications of eating GM foods for human health risk assessment to be treated so lightly.

Consumers can't even choose to avoid GM salmon: Canadian labeling laws don't require anything to be disclosed on a package of salmon except that single word, "Salmon". We're working to change that, too; but for now, consumers can rest assured that reputable retailers have refused to sell GM salmon.

Ask your fishmonger for wild B.C. salmon or sustainably farmed Kuterra salmon, from the land-based farm owned by 'Namgis First Nation.

 

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The court's ruling, posted Dec. 23, 2015, was disappointing. The court refused to return the matter to the Ministers to make a fresh decision. At the same time the ruling did restrict AquaBounty’s manufacture of genetically-modified salmon eggs to its P.E.I. facility, and did not grant the company approval to manufacture at other unassessed facilities across the Canada – one of the initial concerns when bringing this case forward. However, we remained concerned about the implications of the decision and the lack of clarity regarding the ways in which the organism can and cannot be used across the country.

Ecojustice launched an appeal of the decision on our behalf, but was unfortunately unable to have the ruling altered or reversed.

We continue to pursue the issue with the federal government, seeking to confirm that it is enforcing the provisions of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and at the same time, advocating for amendments to the Act to clarify its application.

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