Superfish Is Here: Is This Super Good or Super Bad?

Imagine a “superfish” that grows twice as fast as its relatives in the wild and on fish farms. Now imagine that this superfish costs far less to raise, is easier to keep and far more profitable. Next, suppose that superfish is a super spawning machine that dominates the mating scene.

This product of modern technology and bioengineering might seem like a great idea to some. Those who farm the new species sure think so. But they have a vested interest. They could be rich by giving the world a less expensive fish and providing more meat faster than ever. Everyone wins — or so it seems.

But without stretching the imagination too far, the following scenario also seems possible. Raised in record numbers in pens next to the sea, the superfish escape into the wild and very quickly begin to dominate their environment. No one is sure whether a few hatchlings escaped from the pens. Perhaps some eggs were carried away on the feet of wild sea birds feeding in the pens. But the result is the same, and before too long wild superfish out-compete other naturally occurring species for food and territory. Soon many naturally occurring species, animals that have been part of these ecosystems for thousands of years, begin to disappear. But superfish has spread too far too fast, and is unquestionably here to stay.

Or is it? As the scenario plays out, it is soon discovered that many superfish fail to reproduce. Already they have forced other species to disappear, and soon they too are in danger of disappearing due to a genetic flaw.

Also, it is soon discovered that the meat of superfish causes extremely unpleasant reactions in many consumers. Extended hospitalizations and undetermined long-term effects are consequences.

Weird Science

Thirty to 40 years ago this scenario was the stuff of science fiction. Ten years ago scientists told us that it was just around the corner. Today, it is here. The question before us is, “Do we really gain by developing superfish?” The answer is highly controversial. It involves serious financial, environmental and moral consequences.

At least one version of superfish is here already. A biotechnology company, Aqua Bounty Farms of New Brunswick, Canada, has created a living animal. Different than a hybrid species which result when naturally occurring species mate, the new species is created when scientists insert the genes of Chinook salmon into Atlantic salmon, enhancing growth hormones year-around. Another gene, taken from ocean trout, helps the growth hormones produce faster growing fish. The result is a “transgenic, biogenetically engineered salmon” that grows up to six times faster, is double the size of a normal Atlantic salmon and requires three-fourths the amount of food. Superfish will reach the market in 18 months, about half the time required for typical farmed salmon.

Several biotechnology experts predict that these superfish will be the first biogenetically modified fish to reach the dinner table, and it just might happen within the next year. Right now schools of these fish await approval for sale in the United States. Elliot Entis, president of A/F Protein Inc., the biotech company that owns Aqua Bounty Farm, said that the company has orders for 15 million eggs in the United States and would be ready to ship them next year, pending federal approval. Permission is also sought to sell the fish in Canada.

While superfish is a potential dream-come-true for investors, conservationists and environmentalists express two concerns. One is the lack of U.S. government regulation of biogenetically engineered food. The other is the expectation that transgenic fishes will dominate the environments where they are introduced. An ecosystem imbalance could result and species could vanish.

Who’s in Charge Here?

In the United States, government rules and research dealing with bringing genetically enhanced foods to markets lags far behind state-of-the-art technology. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not involved. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims it is unnecessary to label genetically engineered foods, though recent public outcry over incidents with genetically altered corn might soon change that policy. However, if the policy goes unchanged, genetically engineered fishes could soon be sold to consumers unaware that they are eating unnatural food.

In addition, the FDA has no expertise in researching environmental assessment studies and creating environmental policies. Many conservationists and environmental organizations such as Greenpeace are deeply concerned about a potential genetic catastrophe in wild stocks. Few experts dispute that the newly bioengineered species will eventually escape into the wild. How the superfish will interact with naturally found wild species remains unclear, but it is possible that the engineered fish will dominate the ecosystems where they are introduced so completely that wild species will disappear. If such an event occurs, there is no way to know whether there would be a net gain or loss, but it is highly possible that the effect would be significant and potentially irreversible.

In a recent article that appeared in The New York Times, Dr. Jane Rissler, senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group and longtime critic of biotech regulation, said “the FDA is not qualified to evaluate the ecological risks of engineered fish. We need a system that lets us check things beforehand, that shifts the burden of proof onto those that would introduce them.” Dr. William Brown, science adviser to the secretary of the Department of the Interior agreed, saying, “I don’t think the potential impacts on nature have been thought through as well as they should be.”

In the United States there are few, if any, federal laws governing the use or release of genetically engineered animals. Dr. Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that has been highly critical of the biotech industry and federal regulators, said “there is a huge void here. There are no regulations about what you can and can’t do.”

An Equation for Extinction?

Part of the potential problem that might even seem like a blessing is that some transgenic fishes do not mate as well as naturally occurring species. It is easy to assume that this inability would make it more difficult for these fish to dominate an environment, but that is not necessarily the case. Being larger, the superfish may well dominate the mating game, but in doing so they will rob the naturally occurring species of a chance to reproduce their own. Cross species breeding will not produce offspring, either. At the same time, the superfish will defeat natural species for food and territory.

In a study conducted at Purdue University, mathematicians showed that when transgenic superfish are introduced to a wild population, as few as 60 infertile superfish with dominate characteristics in a population of 60,000 fishes could trigger the extinction of the new species in a mere 40 generations. This is long enough for naturally occurring species to disappear, but in just a few generations the superfish, too, would be extinct.

Spokespersons for Aqua Bounty farms admitted that the company has not done studies to determine whether the superfish has a mating advantage. They added that the FDA had not specified whether studies that addressed such ecological risks would be required. As a result, the company has not conducted studies in this area.

Environmentalists say that while it might not be too late to halt these projects, there is little time to waste. Aqua Bounty Farms also has plans to engineer transgenic char, flounder, trout and tilapia that possess the same enhanced growth rate characteristics. Environmental experts from Greenpeace said that similar projects take place in many countries including China, Taiwan and New Zealand, and commercial stocking occurs in Canada, Chile, Cuba and Scotland.

Leading environmentalists such as Jean-Michel Cousteau claim that the world would be better served by keeping human populations from expanding, by limiting our seemingly insatiable appetites for consumable goods and by creating through cooperative governmental efforts a better social order worldwide. Cousteau said that the effort to create superfish is not directed toward feeding the world’s poor and starving, but toward creating a more profitable fish.

Who and what are right are yet to be determined. What is clear, though, is that the questions regarding superfish are no longer merely hypothetical.

Debate Widespread

Among Scientists, Environmentalists

A source of information is The Center for Food Safety, 660 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Suite 302, Washington D.C., 20003. The telephone number is (202) 547-9359; fax: (202) 547-9429; e-mail: office @centerforfoodsafety.org; Web site: www.centerforfoodsafety.org.

By Marty Snyderman