Companies raising salmon on land face pushback over sustainability and genetic engineering

As demand grows for seafood, the business of fish farming is growing. Companies are raising and harvesting salmon on land, sparking pushback over sustainability and genetic engineering. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien has the second of a two-part look at what's known as "aquaculture."

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now the second of a two-part look at efforts to create more sustainable fishing through what's known as aquaculture.

    As demand grows for seafood, the business of fish farming is growing, but controversy and concerns remain.

    Miles O'Brien reports.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    If you build it, they will swim. Smack dab in the middle of a cornfield in Albany, Indiana, sits an impressive display of nature meeting human ingenuity. The crops are a long way from home.

    Why the watch?

    Sylvia Wulf, President and CEO, AquaBounty Technologies: Biosecurity is absolutely critical, because we have to protect the fists from anything that could harm them, like virus, pathogens, et cetera.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's Sylvia Wulf, president and CEO of AquaBounty, a company focused on fish farming, minus the ocean.

    It does seem like an unlikely place to see thousands of salmon.

  • Sylvia Wulf:

    I would say most people would say it's unusual to see them in big tanks, but this is the future.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's a completely enclosed fish farm. They produce 1,200 metric tons of salmon a year, moving them from tank to tank as they grow, swimming against currents of conventional wisdom.

  • Sylvia Wulf:

    And we want to make sure that we're creating an affordable healthy protein alternative, so that more people can choose it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    This is salmon for the masses?

  • Sylvia Wulf:

    Salmon for the masses.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    She walked me through the stages of growth.

  • Sylvia Wulf:

    These guys are three to four months old. They swim, they eat, they poop. That's what they do.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's life.

  • Sylvia Wulf:

    That's life. So these guys have reached their harvest weight. So they're going to be shipped to market. We're going to harvest.

    They have been here, they have been in a farm for roughly 19-ish months.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's about six to eight months less than other Atlantic salmon. That's because these fish, all sterile females, are genetically engineered.

    Thirty years ago, scientists spliced in a growth hormone gene from Pacific Chinook salmon, which are hardier, more voracious eaters. They also added a so-called promoter gene from ocean pout fish which turns the growth gene on.

  • Sylvia Wulf:

    They eat and eat and eat. And so they grow faster, not larger, faster. But the other thing is, they're incredibly efficient in the way that they process their feed into body mass.

    And so we actually can feed our fish less to get that accelerated growth rate.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In 2015, AquaBounty salmon became the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. The government is requiring it be labeled bioengineered.

    But critics say regulators didn't require the company to do enough research. They are concerned eating the fish might cause unforeseen consequences to human health.

    Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski is a strong critic.

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK):

    We call this combination Frankenfish, because it's just not right. It's just not right. And it disturbs me, quite honestly.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The FDA has mandated the salmon be raised in secure land-based facilities. AquaBounty has never reported an escape. But opponents of the GMO salmon are concerned they might harm wild fisheries.

    Indigenous fishers in Alaska are among activists calling for a boycott.

    Fawn Sharp is vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation.

  • Fawn Sharp, Vice President, Quinault Indian Nation:

    The Quinault Nation opposes genetically engineered salmon because we believe very strongly that the salmon were gifted to our ancestors from the creator.

    And when the creator made and designed salmon, it was perfect. And for man to think that they could somehow modify it and make it better is very arrogant. It's not right.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The boycott campaign has worked. Many big food service companies and grocers are vowing not to sell AquaBounty salmon. So far, only two distributors have signed on.

  • Sylvia Wulf:

    The opposition is pretty loud, but it's a — what we call a very vocal minority. And what it does is it creates this uncertainty in the consumers' mind, but they're willing to listen.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    AquaBounty is expanding, despite the pushback. In April, the company broke ground on a $350 million full-scale production facility in Pioneer, Ohio, able to produce 10,000 metric tons of fish annually.

    The company is seeking a state permit to draw five million gallons a day from the aquifer.

    Ethan Dahlen, WANE 15: Outside of North Central High School, a group of about a dozen protesters were making themselves heard today.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Sparking opposition and a lot of local media coverage.

    Sylvia Wulf says AquaBounty has installed an elaborate water filtration and treatment system. She says the company releases only treated clean water back into rivers and creeks.

    To the extent that water comes out of this facility, is it pretty clean?

  • Sylvia Wulf:

    It is. We have our own wastewater treatment facility in the back of the farm. So we're actually taking any water discharge, putting it through our water — wastewater treatment to make sure that, as we discharge it, we also have settling ponds, which continue to remove any — anything that wouldn't — we wouldn't want discharged into the creek or the river.

    And we're monitored very closely by Indiana EPA and the federal EPA.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Landlocked fish-farming is energy-intensive and expensive.

    Author and journalist Paul Greenberg has spent much of his career focused on the fishing industry.

    Paul Greenberg, Author, "Four Fish": It's very high energy costs to keep water at a constant temperature and keep that water circulating. All these kinds of things that nature does on its own in a tank-based situation, you have to pay for. So it's hard to make that profit margin work.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But demand for seafood is rising. And about 70 percent of the fish we eat in the U.S. is important. When compared to fish flown in from Norway, Scotland or Chile, the delivered cost of salmon raised on land might be on particular.

    But can an indoor fish compete on taste? I asked AquaBounty to send me a sample.

    Wow. They give us the whole darn fish, didn't they? My partner Suzi (ph) cooked it up.

    This looks like regular salmon?

  • Suzi:

    Yes, this looks like any Atlantic salmon that I would cook.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    OK.

    And it passed the test. Consistency is good. Smells great. It's delicious.

    Seafood without the sea, it might be one way to help feed the planet. But it comes with a side of controversy and concern. It's definitely not a free lunch.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Albany, Indiana.

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