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GMO Seafood: A Necessary Conversation

gmosFew subjects evoke more heated and opinionated debate than that of human consumption of genetically modified plants and animals, known as GMOs.
As a wildlife biologist with four decades of experience in the commercial fishing industry, I hope this article will shed more light than heat on issues related to genetically modified fish and fish farming in the future.
This article should not be viewed as an endorsement of GMO fish.  I hope it can serve as the start of a necessary conversation about this subject. In the not too distant future, these fish will enter the marketplace, and all stakeholders, including consumers, should be able to make informed decisions.
No Evidence of Safety Issues
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report last spring in which the scientists wrote that they “found no substantiated evidence that foods from genetically engineered crops were less safe than non-genetically engineered crops.” On top of that, polling has found that 88 percent of the scientific community feels GMO foods are safe. This view is 180 degrees different than that of the general public today where only 37 percent think that GE foods are safe
When I look at the “bigger picture” surrounding seafood, I often wonder where our fish will come from 15, 20, 30 years from now. Our domestic fisheries are well managed, for the most part, but they are all at their “maximum sustainable yield.” That means they cannot be relied on for a significant increase in harvestable poundage to help satisfy the ever-increasing demand for seafood in the future.
The logical conclusion is that we will grow our own fish to meet future demand. Aquaculture is now responsible for more than half of the seafood production worldwide. The predominant method used to grow fish today — ocean open cage aquaculture — has more than its own fair share of environmental issues. All ecosystems, both land and sea, have a “carrying capacity.” When we exceed the carrying capacity of an ecosystem, mother nature moves swiftly to correct it. When you have too many deer in a certain area, black tongue disease breaks out and kills deer by the hundreds. When you farm salmon in densities that are too high, infectious salmon anemia wipes them out. Hundreds of millions of fish being raised in one region of Chile produced an algal bloom that killed 25 million fish last year, and salmon prices spiked by 20 percent.
Zero Environmental Effects
The technology exists today to grow fish successfully on land with zero harmful effects to the environment. Using this technology, there would be no reason to harvest a salmon inside the arctic circle of Norway, truck it to Copenhagen, fly it to JFK airport, and truck it to DC to put on a plate. That fish can instead be grown an hour outside the Washington beltway on a land-based aquaculture farm with a closed recirculating water system, powered by a wind turbine, with not one drop of pollution to the environment.
Science fiction you say? No! You can fly to the sleepy little Gulf coast town of Rockport, Texas and see this technology at work every day. Sustainable Sea Products has created a facility there with several million gallon pools inside big white “tennis bubbles” held up by air pressure. Beautiful white Vanemai shrimp are grown to twice the size (10/15 count) in half the time (20 weeks) of conventional pond-reared shrimp — and not one drop of pollution to the environment! Sustainable Sea Products is also now growing sable (black cod) in Texas, of all places, using the same technology. Eventually, we could meet all our seafood needs using this technology. We can create the “Silicon Valley” of seafood right here along the east coast, growing fish in closed recirculating systems, only hours from major urban centers, producing tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
But the Costs
So why aren’t more fish being grown this way already? The answer is cost. To put it in the simplest terms, it costs about $3 a pound to raise a salmon to 10 pounds using today’s farming techniques of open cage aquaculture. To raise that same fish on land costs about $4 a pound.
And this is where the debate about GMOs comes into play. Land-based aquaculture companies can grow genetically modified fish at or near the same cost as their ocean open cage competitors, leveling the playing field. Take the case of the first GMO salmon approved by the FDA last year. To produce it, an ocean pout gene is spliced into the salmon DNA, which allows it to grow faster, in the dark, and in cold water, saving electricity and cost. Importantly, the process produces fish that are environmentally sustainable and nutritionally and chemically identical to their non-GMO counterparts.
The traditional farm salmon operations aren’t going to make the jump to producing salmon in closed recirculating systems on land out of the goodness of their hearts. They will produce fish on land only if they are forced to do so through competition. If the major consumers of salmon in the country buy into the environmental benefits of raising fish on land, salmon companies will have nowhere to sell their ocean-raised salmon.
The Oyster Tells the Tale
Over the last decade, the consumption of oysters, both live in the shell and shucked, has exploded across the country. It is a “feel good” story with oysters being a “cornerstone species” of their ecosystems, filtering 60 gallons of water per day per oyster and benefitting every living organism in their environment. The oyster aquaculture industry has exploded to meet the increased demand. What you may not know is that roughly 50 percent of the “half shell” oysters on the market today are genetically manipulated. They are non-reproducing “triploids.” Their chromosomes have been manipulated so they cannot reproduce. Triploids take the energy required to reproduce and transmit that into growth energy, reaching their preferred market size of three inches in 14 months versus the 30 months required by a “diploid” oyster. They are chemically and nutritionally identical to their non-GMO counterparts. They have been readily accepted by the restaurant community and public for years.
We will soon face a choice about bringing genetically-modified fish to our tables as well. As seafood demand increases each year, we will have to grow more fish. The question is where — at sea or literally in our own backyards. Which path do you choose?
by Tim Sughrue
TIM SUGHRUE is executive vice presi-dent and founding member of Congressional Seafood Company. He holds a BS from North Carolina State University in Wildlife Biology and Fishery Science. Tim lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and has worked as a full-time commercial waterman on the Bay. He has a unique perspective on the seafood industry being a former research biologist for the Maryland DNR and having sold almost a billion dollars worth of sea-food in his career. He hopes to shed light on some of the larger issues in the seafood industry and facing restauranteurs today.

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