Q&A: Ron Stotish, AquaBounty Technologies
With a background in biochemistry, Ron Stotish joined AquaBounty Technologies of Waltham, Mass., three years ago when the AquAdvantage program piqued his interest. The company’s CEO says his major interest now is to be involved in the approval of the first transgenic food animal. AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage Advanced Salmon Hybrid, which is Atlantic salmon modified with an extra growth hormone from chinook salmon that can reach market size twice as fast as traditional broodstock, is currently awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Stotish expects a decision within the year. If approved, it will be the first product of its kind on the market. Stotish talked to SeafoodSource Thursday about the FDA’s approval process and what a product like AquAdvantage would mean for the seafood industry.
How did the project start?
[It’s] been going on for a long time. The research was started back in the early ‘90s at Memorial University. The founder of AquaBounty was involved in another company and stumbled across the research and thought it was a good idea. [So I] began to develop the project for commercial operations.
Where does the FDA approval process stand now?
The big milestone was that up until Jan. 15, there was no real regulations policy. It had been proposed back in September that they would regulate these animals as basically new animal drugs as part of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. With the finalization and publication of those guidelines in January, the regulation path was clear. Now [the FDA] will review the safety of the target animal, the safety in the resulting product as food, the ethics and the environmental impact of the introduction of such an animal. It could allow salmon aquaculture back to the U.S.
One concern is that farmed fish will escape and breed with wild fish. How is AquaBounty addressing this issue?
All the salmon are sterile because of two basic issues. One, it is a very legitimate concern that people have. What if the fish escape, even if there are no wild populations? And, two, we’re in the business of selling genetics and we’re in the business of selling fish that adds value and grows more rapidly and more efficiently. If we sold animals that could be bred unethically people could take them and breed them themselves. We decided to do this early on because we appreciate the major objective. The salmon are raised in physical containment, not unlike the way trout are reared today. It’s more like a trout so you can grow it in a contained facility and you can grow it efficiently. It eliminates net pens and sea pens. It’s an environmentally sustainable production system. We think there’s a lot of benefits other than producing safe and high quality seafood.
What’s next if the AquAdvantage salmon is approved?
We’re in the process of talking to a couple of firms right now. Global salmon producers are interested. One thing we’re pretty certain of is that once we give this technology to someone who grows fish, we expect they’ll be able to create new opportunities that even we can’t create. This could really be a technology that can help us produce safe and sustainable food.
What other projects are you working on?
We’re working on similar projects with trout and tilapia. Any trait that you can measure you can basically introduce that trait into the fish. We’re looking at other things such as controlling fertility, disease resistance, nutritional quality and other applications. The technology is very powerful and I think will be beneficial; the opportunities are remarkable. The science exists; the proof in the pudding will be if we can get the first one registered.