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Fishing for Justice

EAC risks financial security in court challenge against GM salmon

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

AquaBounty's "AquaAdvantage Salmon" are made by inserting genetic material from Chinook salmon (pictured) and the eel-like species ocean pout into Atlantic salmon eggs.  Aquabounty says their GM salmon grows to market size faster than natural salmon.  Photo: [Pacific Northwest Stream Survey Collection]
AquaBounty's "AquaAdvantage Salmon" are made by inserting genetic material from Chinook salmon (pictured) and the eel-like species ocean pout into Atlantic salmon eggs. Aquabounty says their GM salmon grows to market size faster than natural salmon. Photo: [Pacific Northwest Stream Survey Collection]

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) - The Ecology Action Centre, a Halifax-based NGO, has only been to court twice in its forty-three year history. When Environment Canada approved the manufacturing of genetically modified salmon late last year, however, they decided it was time to take the federal government to court again, says Susanna Fuller, Marine Conservation Coordinator for the organization.

“Going to court is never something that we want to do,” says Fuller. “But it's the only recourse [we have] in this case.”

In November, 2013, Canada became the first government in the world to give genetically modified (GM) salmon any kind of regulatory approval, making it the world’s first GM food animal to go into production.

AquaBounty, an American biotechnology company, which describes itself as “dedicated to the improvement of productivity in aquaculture,” is now growing the GM salmon eggs in P.E.I., and will transport them to Panama, where they will grow to full size.

The approval also allows the manufacture and grow-out of the GM salmon elsewhere in Canada, under certain conditions.

The Ecology Action Centre (EAC) asserts the federal government violated the Environmental Protection Act because it failed to assess whether GM salmon could become invasive, potentially putting ecosystems and wild salmon at risk. The EAC also takes issue with the lack of transparency and public consultation in the decision-making process.

“The process to approve this GM fish was secret in the extreme,” says Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). “Not only was the process itself secret, but the fact that the process was happening at all was in fact secret.”

CBAN explicitly asked both the Minister of Environment and Minister of Health if they were assessing a request from AquaBounty to approve GM salmon and the departments refused to answer, saying it was confidential business information.

“So, until November, when Environment Canada approved the GM fish, Canadians didn't even know if the GM fish was being assessed,” says Sharratt. “And if they asked Environment Canada, they wouldn't have been given an answer.”

“Somebody has to speak out on this. It is a global precedent,” says Fuller. “How do these things get approved? What is the public consultation process? I think if we don't challenge that in Canada, we have abdicated our civic duties.”

On December 23, 2013, after much internal discussion, the EAC made the decision to take the federal government to court.

The first time the EAC took the federal government to court was in 1991 over the proposed Point Aconi Power Plant. The organization lost that case and "lost everything," according to Fuller, “We went from a fully staffed organization to nobody.”

The EAC was awarded costs in the case, which meant they had to foot the government’s legal bill. This left them with a debt to pay and the organization’s morale took a hit.

Since then, however, the EAC has managed to rebuild itself to being one of the largest environmental organizations in Atlantic Canada, making it one of the only organizations that could even consider taking on a case like this.

“Other organizations were either not incorporated or didn't have the capacity to do it,” says Fuller. “When it comes to difficult issues, [taking on cases like this] should be one of the roles of the EAC.”

That said, Fuller also emphasizes that the case will be a financial stretch for the organization. “We have no resources or staff for [the court challenge],” she says. “We know court costs could be at least $40,000, just going into it.” If they lose the case, the EAC also risks being awarded courts costs again, possibly resulting in another financial crisis.

“When organizations take on a legal case it's an extremely serious decision,” says Sharratt, who applauds the EAC for taking the risk and stepping up to the plate.

"It's an incredibly important court challenge," she says. “It refuses to take genetic engineering as a foregone conclusion. It asks the government to provide information to make sure they follow their own laws."

"I think [the government's approval of GM salmon] was a good wake-up call," says Fuller, who believes it’s important for organizations like the EAC not to get too comfortable and to continue taking risks. "This is something we need to take on because it's the right thing to do."

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fishing for justice

There is nothing secret about gm salmon

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