Background image of Salmon that have returned for breeding can be seen as smudges of red in a green river. Trees line the opposite shore of the river.

BLOG

Northwest tribes andgenetically engineered salmon:An interview withValerie Segrest

Valerie Segrest (Muckleshoot) is a Native foods nutritionist and the Regional Director of Native Food and Knowledge Systems for the Native American Agriculture Fund. To learn more about issues surrounding genetically engineered salmon, we spoke with Valerie, who illustrates the relationship between salmon and Northwest tribes and what is at stake if genetically engineered salmon makes its way to market.

In April 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the approval of Massachusetts-based company AquaBounty Technologies’ application to raise genetically engineered (GE) salmon for sale to U.S. consumers beginning in late 2020. GE salmon is the first bioengineered animal ever approved for human consumption. Pacific Northwest Tribes, including the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians as far back as 2014, the National Congress of American Indians, and nongovernmental organizations nationwide stood against GE salmon and raised concerns about the potential danger of this salmon mixing with wild stocks.

On November 5th, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled the FDA violated core environmental laws and, with its decision, forced the agency to re-examine the consequences if GE salmon escaped into the wild. While the FDA was directed to go back to square one and conduct the necessary studies, the decision did not end AquaBounty’s plans.

To learn more about issues surrounding GE salmon, Food & Farms Coordinator Yolimar Rivera Vázquez, Communications & Marketing Manager Megan Foucht, and Director of Indigenous Affairs Lisa Watt (Seneca) spoke with Valerie Segrest (Muckleshoot), Native Foods Nutritionist and Regional Director of Native Food and Knowledge Systems for the Native American Agriculture Fund.

Yolimar: What is your relationship with salmon?

As an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Tribe, my cultural heritage has been shaped by the salmon nation since time began. As a descendent whose bloodline is tied to several Coast Salish villages throughout the Puget Sound region, my lineage is directly connected to a multitude of cultural keystone foods, and salmon is the central pillar—a food source that my ancestors and my family organizes our lives around to this very day. Archeological evidence dating back 10,000 years tells the story of my ancestors managing fisheries in places like Bear Creek and the Cedar River.

A woman smiles up at the camera

As a nutritionist, salmon is one of the most nutritious, energy-rich foods on the planet. Cold water fish are high in vitamin D, and their omega-3 fatty acids are essential to our survival and assist in feeding our large nervous systems and human brain. Micronutrients that are the building blocks of our immune systems and support mental health, specifically in fighting against seasonal affective disorder, are found in the sacred body of the Salmon People. It is said that if you live in the Pacific Northwest, you are Vitamin D deficient. My ancestors never had this problem—they understood the significance of the salmon, the gift, the medicine.

Historically, we were eating traditional foods from the land that supported our health for a very long time. It wasn’t until the 20th century when our people started experiencing epidemic levels of nutrition-related chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and mental health issues like we have today. We know that our food is our medicine. We understand that the remedy to all of these inflammatory diseases is found in the anti-inflammatory medicine the salmon has to offer us.

“[Salmon] truly are everything. Even our origin stories tell us that when our foods—the salmon in this case—cease to exist, so will we, as a people.”

I’m not a fisherman; I’m still learning, but my husband has been fishing since he was a small child alongside his parents. He has dedicated his life to fishing. I am a plant person who has also surrendered my life to serving the plant people. From the seaweed gardens to the evergreen food forests, and all the ecosystems represented in between—all of that was built off the backbones of salmon. Literally. They are so integral to our life and our culture. They are everything, all the abundance and generosity of the landscape we dwell in—it is all because of the ceremonious return of the Salmon People for thousands of years to their ancestral rivers. Despite geological changes, despite environmental evolutions, despite manmade dams—with reverence each year, our salmon return to us and offer their mineral-rich bodies to their unborn, to the rivers, to the forests and the sea. As Coast Salish people, we see this, and we ask ourselves how we might be like the Salmon People: fierce advocates for the world and for the future.

They truly are everything. Even our origin stories tell us that when our foods—the salmon in this case—cease to exist, so will we, as a people—that we will still be humans, walking around on this land, but that we will be nobody without our foods. We will have no culture, no identity. Without the Salmon People, we will have lost our wealth in knowing who we are as a people.

Two Chinook salmon mid-leap out of flowing water
Chinook salmon at Ballard Locks in Seattle, Wash. Photo by Ingrid Taylar

“Tribes are carrying the critical work of ensuring salmon continue to exist in our ancestral waterways, and so many of our fishermen are being displaced from their own ancestral economy, as the cost of being a fisherman is unaffordable.”

Every tribe is involved in protecting salmon in some way. Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Tulalip, Nisqually, Skokomish, Suquamish—every tribe has some form of a fisheries department, most likely birthed out of the Boldt Decision (1974). We truly believe in co-managing, as was agreed upon so many decades ago. However, we are seeing an imbalance between the energy and investment we put into the system and what we’re actually getting out of it. Just a few tribes combined have more invested in fisheries management issues in Washington state than the entire state budget. Tribes are carrying the critical work of ensuring salmon continue to exist in our ancestral waterways, and so many of our fishermen are being displaced from their own ancestral economy, as the cost of being a fisherman is unaffordable. My tribe’s designated fishing area is in the bays and rivers of the City of Seattle, and with so much marine traffic, we are constantly moving our nets so that boats can come through. Often, they just run our nets right over and never stop to assess the damage. This is hit-and-run and costs the tribal fisherman a minimum of  $10,000 in damages, not including the cost of the fish we didn’t catch.

To put it into context, I don’t know of any ranchers or farmers that take all their cattle or produce, raise them up, and then open up everything for everybody else to take. Losing all their investment and providing free labor along the way. It’s a blatant inequality. It’s the kind of stuff that keeps me doing this work, but it also keeps us awake at night, thinking about how we can help tribes get the recognition for all the work that they’re putting into salmon habitat.

Yolimar:  Why is the topic of GE salmon important to you?

When presented with the possibility of GE salmon entering the market and the American food system, I couldn’t not say anything. I understood how critical it was to oppose it. I understood that this would be irreversible damage. I was even more disturbed that precisely zero research had been done on the impacts a GE salmon species would have when it contaminates the environment and our human bodies. [Editor’s note: The November 5 court ruling declared that the FDA had not adequately analyzed the risk to endangered salmon from escape.] And then I reflected on some basic concepts of what it means to conduct ethical research and wondered, “How are we allowing humans, United States consumers, to be the subjects of an experiment like this?” An experiment that has been ongoing for the past few decades, when all kinds of GE foods, like corn, had been quietly slipped onto our grocery store shelves.

Then the anger set in, when I realized the potential profit this transnational corporation would be benefitting from the nutritional reputation and profile of wild salmon, and GE salmon is nothing like it. It does not offer the same amount of omega-3 fats, not even close. It does not offer vitamins and minerals—refined from the lifecycle of a true wild salmon.

“The first goal and the work of colonization, the genocidal efforts and policies that have been put in place to wipe tribes off the lands we originate from, is to promote invisibility. They made us invisible and created a false narrative about an entire race of people. AquaBounty followed that narrative. They never asked permission to take our cultural, intellectual property.”

Perhaps the most disturbing part of it all came when I was sharing my thoughts on this with a colleague of mine, and he pointed out that a corporation now owns the DNA of wild Chinook salmon. Someone now owns my ancestral foods’ DNA. I remember that as a spirit-shaking moment and thinking, “How dare you?”

We put so much into taking care of the Chinook, and a company, without consultation, ripped out the genetics of a Chinook salmon and spliced it with an Atlantic salmon and an eel fish—three species that, if you combined in a small tank and let swim together for thousands of years, would never procreate. And that is why it is called the Frankenfish. Mother Nature designed them not to be this one fish, so why are we wasting so much scientific brilliance on this weird Planet of the Apes kind of stuff?

Two salmon, laterally parallel to each other, inside a tank (not visible). The fish in the back is almost three times the size of the fish in the front.
AquaBounty’s salmon (background) has been genetically modified to grow bigger and faster than a conventional Atlantic salmon of the same age (foreground). Photo from AquaBounty

Yolimar: A lot of the reasons around why GE salmon came to be is through colonization. How does colonization impact our food system? And how is that related to capitalism?

I think the first goal and the work of colonization, the genocidal efforts and policies that have been put in place to wipe tribes off the lands we originate from, is to promote invisibility. They made us invisible and created a false narrative about an entire race of people. AquaBounty followed that narrative. They never asked permission to take our cultural, intellectual property, which is really hard for us to come to terms with, referring to salmon in those terms.

Every time that invisibility is promoted, every time tribes are overlooked when it comes to aquacultural co-management efforts, or even scientific innovations around our foods that we’ve been maintaining and cultivating for thousands of years, it means colonialism is working.

When it comes to capitalism, the method behind it is to extract all the resources from the land for monetary profit. They’re one and the same. You need colonialism to make capitalism happen.

Those are all the ramifications of when colonialism is working on a people, when we just blast forward with some new “food” and don’t stop to consider the people that have actually been managing that food for thousands of years.

A Chinook salmon only half submerged in a shallow stream. The lower parts of the salmon are very red.
Wild Chinook salmon. Photo from Bureau of Land Management

Yolimar: That is so true. Who do you think benefits from GE salmon?

This is where my mentor would tap me on the shoulder and say, what’s good for a Native person is good for everybody. Tribal fishers will not be the only ones affected by this; all small-scale fishery operations are at risk to become washed out into a global food economy by a shamefully inferior product. We are just the canaries in the coal mine—really, in so many ways this is the truth. Our cultural teachings and lifeways, at the very center, provide instructions for how humans can live in balance with the living world around us. This is done through practical reasoning and the deep understanding that human health and environmental health are inextricably intertwined.

So all this to say, we certainly do not benefit. The industrial food system benefits. Some corporation who does not actually care about human or environmental health benefits—greatly.

“If we really want to see true change happen and a food system that will uphold our health, come to us—not out of pity—but because we have answers.

Yolimar: GE salmon was supposed to come to market last September. It’s being halted thanks to many lawsuits that have been pushed out, including from tribes. But it’s probably going to come back soon. What’s on the line here, and how can we change or stop GE salmon from coming to market?

We have this age-old American tradition where we vote with our dollar, and that is precisely what we should do on an individual level. Then continuing to support public knowledge and awareness. One of the most remarkable parts to this story for me was to witness the synergy of Rep. Maria Cantwell’s office (D-WA, 1st District) working in sync with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). A Democrat and Republican, in a time of polarization, came together and worked on anything they could do to slow the pushing of GE salmon into our food system.

Together they were able to prolong the introduction of GE salmon into the American food system by requiring labeling (that is right, they didn’t even want to tell us if our salmon was also an eel fish!). This is a good reminder that standing together in solidarity, opposing GE salmon, is not a cause about just us; this involves all of us, because it will affect everyone.

The Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ) have letters on their website for folks who want to support this cause by asking their Representatives to ban GE fish in any capacity from our waters in the Pacific Northwest. This is a start, in case anybody wanted to take their Atlantic farming operation and switch it to the West Coast.

Continuing to make these preventative policy efforts might be the best way to impede GE salmon from accessing our markets.

Megan: From your perspective, what is it like to navigate this double landscape, of not only corporate capitalism that is more clearly harmful, but also the well-meaning but potentially harmful food advocates who might not be getting the full picture of what you’re sharing here?

If people really want a successful food system that will feed the future, the success of that absolutely depends on how well we engage Native people who have been managing this old food system for so long and know these lands and waters so well. It really does amaze me that food advocates in this space do not understand this critical message. We are all in this together, and the Native-led grassroots food movement has tremendous power and potential to animate change—quickly and efficiently. Yet, we are constantly found in these spaces, minimized and offering practical reasoning. If we really want to see true change happen and a food system that will uphold our health, come to us—not out of pity—but because we have answers.

Thank you, Valerie.

To learn more about GE salmon, check out CAGJ’s and Uprooted & Rising’s solidarity campaigns. The latest court ruling on GE salmon came out on November 5, 2020. This is an issue the Ecotrust Fisheries team will continue to watch.

[Added on December 24, 2020] In solidarity with Northwest tribes opposed to genetically engineered salmon, CAGJ is currently asking supporters to urge food service giants Compass Group and Aramark to continue rejecting GE salmon.