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Federal judge rules FDA violated environmental laws with approval of genetically engineered salmon

A federal judge has ruled that production of the world’s first genetically engineered salmon was allowed to go aheadwithout the required evaluation of environmental risks.

The ruling, from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, says the Food and Drug Administration violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act when it granted approval to a plan from Massachusetts-based AquaBounty in 2015.

In a nutshell, the court has sent FDA back to the drawing board to take another look at the environmental risks posed by genetically engineered salmon,” said Steve Mashuda, a Seattle-based attorney with Earthjustice and co-counselfor the plaintiffs.

The company produces Atlantic salmon that has been engineered to make it grow up to twice as fast as conventionally farmed fish, by adding genes from Pacific chinook and eel-pout. The fish are raised in tanks in Indiana, from eggs grown at a facility on Canada’s Prince Edward Island.

A coalition of anti-GMO and fish advocacy groups brought suit against the FDA’s approval in 2016. Mashuda says they’re concerned about AquaBounty’s plans to expand.

It didn't really get into this operation as a salmon farming proposition,” he said.  “It got in because it would love to be able to sell these eggs to existing salmon farms all over the world, including right here — potentially —  in Puget Sound.”    

West Coast concerns center on British Columbia, where there are many Atlantic salmon farming operations. Washington state also has a robust seafood industry, including many players with aspirations for net pen farming, despite recent mishaps by Cooke Aquaculture. The ruling orders the FDA to re-analyze the risks from accidental release or escape of the engineered fish. 

This was welcome news forQuinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp, who also was elected as president of the National Congress of American Indians last year. She says federal officials never consulted tribes about the decision to alter these salmon. And they have dragged their feet throughout the case.

“I was ecstatic,” she said of her reaction when she read the ruling. “It took several court rulings just to get basic information on their deliberative process  — and of all weeks, to get a positive ruling against an administration that failed to consult with tribes… I was just so happy!”

She says her nation joined the suit as quickly as they could in 2016. They already were concerned about genetically modified foods and lack of labeling in the U.S.

“But then, the idea that a company would engineer our most prized and sacred resource, our salmon,” she said. “Then there is no doubt and no question in my mind that we had to do all we can to push back on the FDA approval.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria did not vacate the FDA’s approval of the salmon for human consumption, allowing that to continue while environmental review is redone.  He said the risk for near-term environmental harm is low.

The CEO of AquaBounty said in an emailed statement the company is disappointed in parts of the ruling, but remains confident and will work with FDA on next steps and “continue to evaluate the legal decision.” Its fish is not yet being sold in the U.S. 

“This decision will not have an impact on our ongoing operations on Prince Edward Island, Canada to produce eggs or in the raising and selling of AquAdvantage salmon from our farm in Indiana,” the statement reads. “The future of our domestic and global food supply will depend on innovation and technology and AquaBounty remains steadfast in our commitment to leading that charge.”

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to