Fish and chips or frankenfish

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The latest edible to get bioengineered could be B.C.’s own salmon

By Kristina Charania
Photos by Steven Zolneczko

Hey, you. Yeah, you — the kid shivering at pictures of fist-sized strawberries, glow-in-the-dark cats, and spider goats.

You’ll be nonplussed to hear that your seafood products may be next on the biotechnology chopping block. In particular, the conflict between farmed and wild salmon is not only incredibly complex, but it may have an alarming and quickly-developing third participant: the frankenfish.

It’s a well-known fact that farmed salmon are notorious for retaining a potent stew of antibiotics, pesticides, and toxins that lead to complications when ingested by humans. Take Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) as an example — besides clear evidence of carcinogenicity, they are proven to reduce the immune system’s response to pneumonia and viral infections, promote irregular thyroid hormone levels, and contribute to the formation of brain defects that initiate short-term memory and several learning deficits. Many components of this chemical mishmash are also bioaccumulative, meaning they accumulate faster than our bodies can metabolize them, which has severe implications for pregnant women who can pass on these substances to a vulnerable fetus.

To avoid these health difficulties, nutrition experts usually refer fish-lovers to wild salmon. Thankfully, our ocean-side location makes buying fresh salmon simple for Vancouverites.

Unfortunately, wild salmon populations continue to decrease, which may potentially lead to price hikes. When biotech company AquaBounty produced their first set of genetically modified salmon — claiming to nearly halve the growth period of salmon through a tweaked gene that turns on growth hormones for longer — the worries of some consumers were put to rest.

But these fish are a fucking awful solution to any type of salmon issue.

For starters, AquaBounty fish are bulkier and nastier than their organic counterparts. If these pimped-out salmon escape into ecosystems housing wild-type or “regular” fish, they will naturally become schoolyard bullies and outcompete normal salmon for food and shelter. Wild salmon levels would then hit an ultimate low that would not safely allow fish to be caught (a further population decrease) and sold alongside farmed and genetically tweaked fish.

If modified fish become the primary species populating oceans and streams, their total annihilation by salmon necrosis or a similar infectious disease is likely — these mutated salmon are genetically identical and lack all of the same antibodies. At this point, no wild-type or GM salmon would exist to be caught for consumption at all, leaving restaurants and families with unhealthy farmed salmon.

There are other problems with the ambiguous genetic modifications in these creatures. If released to the public, it would be impossible for a regular person to identify every chromosomal mutation in the salmon and their subsequent effects on our bodies. While AquaBounty clarifies that they have mutated the gene that produces growth hormone, other modifications for size, eating habits, and bodily function could go unnoticed — the repercussions of such alterations in seafood meant for ingestion are unknown and may not be identified until the fish has nosed its way into our diets.

Fortunately, the FDA has not approved of any genetically modified organism (GMO) for sale yet — so, for the time being, consumers and health advocacy groups can lay their concerns to rest.

But if, one day, your salmon begins to look strangely like a Magikarp, you should probably throw it down the nearest garbage chute. You know what they say, after all: you are what you eat.