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Document Type

Comment

Abstract

It is likely that the last Atlantic salmon you ate was not caught from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, it is highly probable that the salmon was never caught at all. The vast majority of Atlantic salmon sold in the United States is “farm raised” salmon, which are salmon that never swim freely in any body of water other than a fish pen. This system of fish farming is known as aquaculture. The global production of salmon, which exceeded one million tons in 2008, is the top aquaculture money maker. Moreover, aquaculture accounts for seventythree percent of global salmon production. Aquaculture allows for greater control of production and also helps deter the overfishing of already fragile wild Atlantic salmon populations. Increasingly, however, the aquaculture process has been subject to criticisms relating to the prevalence of disease and sea lice in its products, the frequency of species escape, and the creation of “dead zones” from highly concentrated waste. Additionally, there is a growing awareness that the antibiotics used on farmed salmon may not be healthy for human consumption. More significantly, the depleted state of wild fisheries places increased demand on the production capacities of aquaculture. In order to make salmon aquaculture a more viable and productive business, scientists have begun creating genetically modified (GM) Atlantic salmon with various traits. With the production of the AquAdvantage Salmon (AAS), which grows up to four times larger than traditional Atlantic salmon because of the introduction of growth hormone genes from other fish, AquaBounty Technologies (AquaBounty) has been at the forefront of genetic modification in Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty markets the AAS as a panacea for fish farming issues and global protein shortages. The patenting and production of GM salmon, however, presents a number of potential risks, including food safety, market dominance over a very important food source, and various property issues resulting from AAS escaping and cross-breeding with wild salmon. This last consideration is the focus of this comment. If AAS escapes and either out-competes the native salmon populations or mates with them and forever alters their genetic makeup, then this will result in a showdown of competing legal interests. Conventional Atlantic salmon fishermen (hereinafter non-GM fishermen) and public stakeholders in wild Atlantic salmon have certain property interests based on the public trust doctrine. Biotechnology companies, such as AquaBounty, arguably have a more discrete and enforceable property interest based on their patent of AAS. Few parties dispute AquaBounty’s right to protect and produce its patented fish so long as the fish remain in AquaBounty’s production sites. But what will happen if AquaBounty’s fish escape into the wild? No case law definitively resolves this question. This paper, therefore, relies on an analogy to case law addressing the capture of wildlife and patent infringement of GM plants. Because the factual details in these two areas of GM plant law may differ from those in the GM animals context, the following hypothetical escape scenario is offered as the factual foundation of a potential lawsuit against non-GM fishermen for infringement of an AAS patent: The AAS has been mass produced at a number of New England aquaculture sites with great success. One night, however, the combination of a power outage and a huge storm compromises a low containment system at an aquaculture site. A number of AAS escape and populate the surrounding area. Resulting generations, which may be wild-AAS hybrids or simply second generation AAS, express the same genes for increased growth and cold resistance that AquaBounty patented in AAS. After a couple of years, the AAS fish farm discovers that its revenues have been decreasing by a small margin and traces this decrease to greater competition at a local fish market. After sending an experienced AAS representative to the market, the fish farm realizes—based on anecdotal evidence from the fishermen and increased growth characteristics of the fish—that these fish are likely wild-AAS hybrids. The representative buys some of the fish and discovers that they contain the patented genes of AAS. AquaBounty, which has a license with the fish farm to maintain its intellectual property rights in AAS, sues the fishermen for infringement. At trial, the fishermen discover that there is no such thing as an “innocent infringer” and find themselves responsible for damages to AquaBounty for lost profits. Two major issues must be addressed: How can non-GM fishermen protect their property interests in native salmon given the threat of escape in a pre-escape market? How should property rights be determined in a post-escape market? This Comment explores these two questions through the lenses of wildlife law and patent law. Part II looks to the AAS itself and answers many of the questions about how it is produced, how it is contained, and how the current production and containment systems will change significantly when the focus moves from research and development to large-scale production for consumption. Part III looks to traditional legal concepts of property ownership in wild animals and shows how the traditional concept of capture, when applied to the unique circumstances of GM animals, leaves more questions than answers about how to determine possession of AAS. It then explores the public trust doctrine as an alternative means of protection for non-GM fishermen. Part IV shows how the existing state of GM patent law favors biotechnology companies over non-GM farmers and fisherman, whether or not they intend to infringe the GM organism patent. Finally, Part V concludes that this uncomfortable relationship between these two traditional approaches to property law and GM animals requires judicial and legislative adjustment to provide for equitable treatment of non-GM fishermen subject to unintentional infringement suits. It also offers three existing pre-escape remedies to act as preemptive measures against possible infringement suits and one post-escape response to infringement suits.

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