One day in 1992, a technology entrepreneur sat down for a meeting with a pair of biologists who were studying the genes of fish. The scientists, Choy Hew and Garth Fletcher, were working on a method of purifying “antifreeze proteins” that would help Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) survive so-called superchill events in the North Atlantic. Normally these salmon migrate out of the subzero ice-laden seawater of the far North Atlantic to overwinter in less frigid waters. Increasingly, though, such fish were being farmed, penned year-round in offshore cages, in near-Arctic waters to which they were not adapted. Fish farmers were looking for a way to keep the fish alive through the winter, and the antifreeze protein seemed like a possible solution.
As the meeting drew to a close, Fletcher and Hew showed Elliot Entis, the entrepreneur, a photo of two fish of equal age. One dwarfed the other. “I sat back down,” Entis recalled recently.
Fletcher and Hew, it turned out, had not just been putting antifreeze proteins into Atlantic salmon. They had also figured out a way to add a growth hormone from Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), plus a fragment of DNA from the ocean pout (Zoarces americanus), an eel-like creature that inhabits the chilly depths off the coast of New England and eastern Canada. This genetic code acts like an “on” switch to activate the growth hormone. The result was a genetically engineered superfish that grew nearly twice as fast, on less food, than conventional salmon.
Those salmon, grown and marketed by a company called AquaBounty Technologies that was founded by Entis, could be coming to U.S. grocery stores next year. And they could offer a way out of the deadly spiral of overfishing that is decimating wild fish stocks.
Open-ocean fishing for wild species is no longer sustainable; it hasn’t been for a long time. While some of the most damaging forms of industrial fishing have been outlawed over the years, a combination of continued overfishing, habitat destruction, and warming oceans has dramatically reduced salmon populations. According to the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, of the 17 distinct populations of Pacific salmon, all are considered either “in danger of extinction” or “likely to become endangered.” Atlantic salmon, too, have been battered by commercial overfishing, climate change, and cross-contamination by farmed salmon and the resulting spread of disease; their population has fallen by half in the past 20 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund.