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Environmental groups take federal government to court for permitting manufacture of genetically modified salmon in Canada

January 20, 2014
Approval fails to consider invasiveness threat, puts wild salmon and environment at risk

Environmental groups want a court to decide if the federal government violated its own law by permitting the manufacture of genetically modified salmon in Canada.

“Canadians expect their government to implement, not ignore, the laws that protect our ecosystems from harm,” said Tanya Nayler, one of the Ecojustice lawyers representing Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society. “By granting approval for this genetically modified species without obtaining all the legally required information, the government has failed to meet their legal obligation.”

The groups assert the approval is unlawful because it failed to assess whether genetically modified salmon could become invasive, potentially putting ecosystems and species such as wild salmon at risk. Both groups are asking the court to set aside the government’s assessment and require the government to comply with the law before permitting the manufacture of these genetically modified organisms.

Genetic material from Chinook salmon and the eel-like species ocean pout were inserted into Atlantic salmon eggs to create AquAdvantage salmon. According to the fish manufacturer, AquaBounty Canada Inc., the genetically modified salmon grows to market size faster than conventional salmon.

“The Atlantic salmon has evolved over millions of years and is found in cold-water rivers from Maine to Russia,” said Susanna Fuller of the Ecology Action Centre. “The move to commercial production of GM Atlantic salmon puts this magnificent wild fish at risk of irreversible genetic contamination.”

The lawsuit challenges decisions made by the Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, and the Minister of Health, Rona Ambrose. Ecojustice lawyers filed a judicial review with the Federal Court on Dec. 23, 2013, and have now served notice of the lawsuit on all parties, including the fish manufacturer.

AquaBounty plans to grow the genetically modified salmon eggs in P.E.I. and then transport them to Panama, where they will grow to full size. However, the approval would also allow the manufacture and grow out of the genetically modified salmon elsewhere in Canada under certain conditions.

Another worrying aspect of this case is the lack of transparency and public consultation in the decision-making process, something that concerns Karen Wristen, Executive Director of the Living Oceans Society in B.C.

“This is the world’s first genetically modified food animal to go into production,” Wristen said. “This was done without any public debate at all and under circumstances that look like a deliberate attempt to prevent public comment. Canadians have a right to know about decisions like this in advance of them being made.”

The main legal arguments of the case are based on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. They include:

  • That the federal Ministers acted unlawfully in purporting to complete an assessment of whether AquAdvantage salmon is toxic or capable of becoming toxic without obtaining all information required by the law;
  • That the Minister of the Environment had no jurisdiction to publish a notice setting out permitted uses, based on an incomplete toxicity assessment of AquAdvantage salmon;
  • Alternatively, the Minister of the Environment failed in her legal duties by permitting unassessed uses of AquAdvantage salmon, such as its grow out in Canada, to proceed.

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Contact Information

English Interviews:
Karen Wristen, Executive Director | Living Oceans Society
Office: 250-973-6580 Cell: 604-788-5634

Tanya Nayler, Staff lawyer | Ecojustice
613 562-5800, ext. 3178

French or English Interviews:
Will Amos, Staff lawyer | Ecojustice
613-562-5800, ext. 3378

Susanna Fuller, Marine Conservation Coordinator | Ecology Action Centre
Office: 902-446-4840; Cell: 902-483-5033

Background

Genetically modified (GM) fish in Canada

The federal Ministers of the Environment and Health have approved the commercial production of a genetically modified (GM, also called genetically engineered) Atlantic salmon trademarked as “AquAdvantage” salmon. The decision was disclosed in a notice published in the Canada Gazette on November 23, 2013. The decision allows the biotechnology company AquaBounty to proceed with its plan to produce GM salmon eggs in Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada for shipping to Panama for grow-out and processing.

If fully approved for production and consumption, the GM salmon would be the first GM animal approved for human consumption in the world. The Canadian approval  represents the first regulatory approval for this genetically modified species.

The U.S. arm of AquaBounty has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the GM salmon for human consumption in the U.S.

GM Atlantic salmon – “AquAdvantage” salmon

Genetic modification (also called genetic engineering or rDNA technology) is a controversial technology that allows for the transfer of genetic material directly from one organism to another (across the species and kingdom barriers) at the molecular level, and is dramatically different from animal breeding, posing new risks and unpredictable impacts on the organism and ecosystems.

The GM AquAdvantage salmon was engineered by introducing a growth hormone gene from Pacific Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and genetic material from ocean pout (Zoarces americanus - an eel-like species) into the eggs of Atlantic salmon (Salmon salar). The company claims the GM fish grow faster than other farmed or wild salmon.

GM salmon legal challenge

Two Canadian environmental groups – Ecology Action Centre (N.S.) and Living Oceans Society (B.C.) – are asking a court in Canada to decide if the federal government violated its own law when it permitted the manufacture of the GM AquAdvantage salmon. Lawyers with the charitable organization Ecojustice filed a judicial review application with the Federal Court on Dec. 23, 2013 and served notice of the lawsuit on all parties, including the fish manufacturer AquaBounty, in January 2014.

The legal challenge asserts that the approval is unlawful because it failed to assess whether the GM salmon could become invasive, potentially putting ecosystems and species such as wild salmon at risk.

The main legal arguments of the case are based on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, including:

  • That the federal Ministers of Environment and Health acted unlawfully in purporting to complete an assessment of whether the GM salmon is toxic or capable of becoming toxic without obtaining all information required by law;
  • That the Minister of the Environment had no jurisdiction to publish a notice setting out the permitted uses of the GM salmon eggs, based on an incomplete toxicity assessment of the GM salmon;
  • Alternatively, the Minister of the Environment failed in her legal duties by permitting unassessed uses of GM salmon, such as its grow out in Canada, to proceed.

Public information on GM salmon assessment

In Canada, the process for assessing the GM salmon is cloaked in secrecy. Environment Canada and the company AquaBounty refused to acknowledge that an assessment of the GM salmon was even underway. There have been no public consultations on the GM salmon in Canada.

Additionally, Health Canada could be assessing a request to approve the GM fish for human consumption, however neither the government nor the company will confirm whether such an assessment is underway.

When the decision to approve the manufacture of the GM salmon was made public in late November 2013, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) posted a document summarizing a meeting that discussed the risk assessment: Summary of the Environmental and Indirect Human Health Risk Assessment of AquAdvantage Salmon. To date, this is the only public document describing the Canadian risk assessment.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is close to a final decision to allow (or disallow) the GM salmon for human consumption.

AquaBounty plans PEI-Panama-U.S. route for GM salmon

The biotechnology company AquaBounty maintains a research and development facility at Bay Fortune, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The company currently proposes to produce the GM salmon eggs in PEI, to ship them to Panama for grow out and processing, for export into the U.S. consumer market as “table-ready” fish.

Environmental Risks

The DFO summary risk assessment recognized that GM salmon may pose a risk to wild salmon, but placed emphasis on containment measures in reaching its conclusions.

The DFO summary risk assessment made mention of AquaBounty’s intent to produce sterile (triploid) female GM salmon for export and grow-out, but recognized that up to five percent of those fish may be able to reproduce. The Canadian approval also allows for non-sterile GM salmon to be used in egg production.

If fertile GM fish were to escape from confinement, it could pose a significant environmental threat. GM salmon may be able to survive and breed in the wild. GM salmon are capable of breeding with brown trout (Oke et al., 2013).

The effects of an escape of GM fish into the wild, including potential interbreeding with wild salmon, could be irreversible. The full environmental impacts of GM fish will only be known if an escape happens.

Atlantic salmon populations around the world, including many populations in Canada, are endangered.

Any risk of GM salmon escaping into the wild is unacceptable, especially when their potential to become an invasive species has not been properly assessed and the future of Atlantic salmon is already threatened.

Opposition in the food and aquaculture industry

Public opposition in Canada

75 organizations in Canada say they oppose GM fish, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Wild Salmon First, the Fundy Baykeeper, and the United Church of Canada. Click here for the full list of organizations.

For more information: www.cban.ca/fish

Images

  • Karen Wristen, Executive Director of Living Oceans
  • Map: AquaBounty plans to grow the genetically modified salmon eggs at its facility in Bay Fortune, P.E.I. and then transport them to Panama, where they will grow to full size.