A small story in today’s NYTimes would perhaps be unnoticed in quiet times, but coming soon after the Gulf Blow-out, it merits attention. A Waltham, Massachusetts genetic engineering company announced that they are in the later stages of approval for a genetically modified salmon species that will grow to maturity in farms in half the time of an ordinary breed. In writing this last sentence I struggle to know what to call the unmodified salmon. Natural, no, the salmon raised in farms come from a line that has forgotten what it is to live in the wild. Wild, no, at least not along the Eastern seaboard. So many farmed salmons have escaped and interbred that the original Atlantic salmon is endangered and rare, if it exists at all now. A similar situation occurs along the Pacific coast.
The laboratory scientists developed the new species by injecting DNA from a Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon, to activate the Chinook gene in the cold temperatures where the salmon would be farmed. This would allow the fish to grow all year round, accounting for the shorter time to full size, at which point they can be harvested and sold. These “engineers” claim the fish will be indistinguishable from “ordinary” salmon in every characteristic of importance to people eating the fish.
Without further comment here about genetic modification in general, I am most concerned about the following sentence fro the story
Mr. Stotish said the salmon would be grown only in inland tanks or other contained facilities, not in ocean pens where they might escape into the wild. And the fish would all be female and sterile, making it impossible for them to mate.
I have been using the black swan metaphor of Nassim Taleb to talk about the possibility of “impossible” events, with regard to the Gulf blowout. Fish farmers have not been the most careful of operators, and his statement gives little assurance that these fish would not be grown under circumstances that lead to their escaping into the ocean. I am not aware of the inspection and monitoring procedures for fish farming, but I suspect they are not great. And we have little knowledge or control of practices outside of the US. I picture the emergence of a “black” salmon phenomenon here when something happens to surprise us in a situation where what happens could not have happened. Having the FDA as the agency in charge of this process gives me little solace that we will ever be prepared for the consequences of being wrong.