AquaBounty has combined genetic material from chinook salmon and other fish and combined them with Atlantic salmon.

Whether or not the federal Food and Drug Administration approves a genetically engineered salmon for sale in U.S. markets and restaurants is one question now pending. Whether the public will know they’re eating the fish if the feds approve it is another.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) has introduced legislation that would require all genetically engineered salmon sold in California to be labeled as such. AB 88, which Huffman introduced on Jan. 6 and which will receive a formal hearing in March, comes in answer to a Massachusetts biotech company’s effort to gain the FDA’s approval of a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon that grows twice as fast as conventionally farmed and wild fish.

AquaBounty Technologies used a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from a fish called a pout to create the creature, patented as AquAdvantage but nicknamed “Frankenfish” by critics. Company reps have issued assurances that it’s safe to eat, but their resistance against possible requirement that they disclose the product’s origins to consumers has raised Huffman’s suspicions.

“If (AquaBounty) believes their product is so benign, they should have no problem with identifying it,” he said.

Environmentalists are concerned that the Frankenfish, if it gets loose in ocean waters, could comingle with wild salmon and even compete against them in the hunt for food and mates. Though the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program will not classify the AquAdvantage salmon as a red, yellow, or green seafood item on its pocket cards unless the FDA approves it for consumption,
communications officer Alison Barratt says the aquarium is “not in favor of this going forward.”

Even if the fish never get loose, Huffman believes the very option of buying salmon created artificially will undercut efforts to preserve wild salmon.

“Supporting wild California salmon as a food is an important way to conserve the species,” said Huffman, who warned that, should the AquAdvantage salmon gain the feds’ approval, “the policy against raising farmed salmon in our state could be the next barrier to go.”

Greenpeace’s senior markets campaigner Casson Trenor thinks the FDA’s pending decision could mark a dire turning point. “The danger is that once we approve this thing and release it, there’s no holding it back.”