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Will lab-grown fish save Alaska’s wild salmon stocks?

WildType Tash Kimmell
Tash Kimmell
/
KCAW
If you think this piece of salmon looks like the real thing — it is, at least biologically. Stem cells taken from a salmon are cultured on a plant-based “scaffold” to produce the taste and texture of fish, without genetic engineering, according to its creators.

Although wild salmon remains one of Alaska’s most lucrative seafood industries, it’s also one of the state’s most vulnerable, as climate change and population growth increase pressure on the world’s oceans. As it looks more and more likely that demand will eventually outstrip the productivity of salmon and other wild seafood stocks, researchers have turned to another method for producing protein from fish by culturing it in a lab.

It’s a typical overcast morning in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood when I arrive at the headquarters of the biotech company Wildtype. In a city known for tech, Wildtype isn’t an anomaly, but in the world of sustainable seafood they’re making waves.

KCAW: Hey, how are you doing? 

Dalton Thomas: Nice to meet you. I’m Dalton. 

KCAW: Nice to meet you.

Inside the Wildtype offices, a group of young scientists mills around in sneakers, and graphic-t’s obscured by white lab coats. Dalton Thomas, the company’s head of food service sales, seats me at a kitchen bar. Behind it, an in-house sushi chef prepares me a plate of their product before it hits the US market – lab grown salmon.  

It’s a square block of marbled pink flesh, almost indistinguishable from traditional salmon – except this fish has never touched the ocean.

Thomas: So we have the nigiri version of the wild type salmon. It’s already brushed  with soy sauce, so it’s just ready to eat. Here are some mustard, miso, and chives. And then this is more like a typical salmon avocado roll. 

Wildtype’s fish is intended to be enjoyed raw, a decision made in part because of the sheer size and profitability of the sushi industry. However, as Thomas explains, “cell cultured” salmon is simply not as appetizing when cooked.

KCAW: It does have a sea flavor. But it’s like not as soft.

Thomas: It’s not fishy.

KCAW: It’s really smooth, that’s how I’d describe it. 

Thomas: Kind of homogenous.

KCAW: It does taste like fish, which is weird.

Thomas: It’s not weird, because it’s fish!

WildType sushi.png
Tash Kimmell
/
KCAW
Wildtype hopes to introduce its product into the sushi market. Although delicious raw, lab-cultured salmon does not cook very well.

While lab-grown salmon may seem futuristic, the technology and the product are already here on my plate. But is it really fish?

“The basic idea is we cultivate real salmon cells,” said Justin Kolbeck, co-founder and CEO of Wildtype. “And we combine those with a plant based scaffold or sort of a three dimensional matrix to help create a really nice appearance and taste and texture.”

He goes on.

“The super cool thing is we’ve actually been able to replicate fat and this sort of connective tissue – that white stuff and you’re biting into a piece of raw salmon that kind of gets stuck between your teeth and then the fatty parts – without having to use any genetic engineering.”

To make this product, technicians harvest stem cells from wild salmon. Then, in the same way a baker might feed a sourdough starter, they feed the cells with different proteins, amino acids, salts and sugars. The “scaffold” as Kolbeck calls it, works like a 3D lattice, made of different plant cells. The fish cells mesh with the scaffold, which then directs the cells to grow into fat or tissue, giving the salmon its texture and shape. But Wildtype’s creators say their mission goes beyond the novelty of growing meat in a lab.

Kolbeck says the company’s aim is only to supplement the existing seafood industry, not supplant it. The company has even gone so far as to invest in conservation efforts around one of the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

“If you look at the long run trends, returning stocks of Pacific salmon in general along the Pacific coast have been declining pretty substantially over the last 40-50 years,” Kolbeck said. “The FAO (Food and Agriculture Association) predicts we’re going to need something like 30 million more tons of seafood to satisfy demand by the end of this decade. I found myself asking — and I know a lot of others have asked — where’s all that fish gonna come from?”

“I don’t think it is a solution as much as a diversion,” said Eric Jordan, a multigenerational commercial fisherman. For most of his lifes he’s made a living trolling for wild salmon in the waters of Southeast Alaska. He says he doesn’t believe lab-grown salmon poses a threat to his livelihood, but does have other concerns.

“I catch these creatures that are the most wonderful food on Earth,” said Jordan. “I can’t imagine this lab-produced flash is going to taste anything like wild Alaska Salmon. So I’m not threatened by that. I am concerned about the existential climate change threat, and trawl bycatch.”

Alaska is one of the biggest producers of wild caught salmon in the world. But in recent years, the state has struggled with the environmental stressors of a warming planet. Salmon runs virtually disappeared from of Western Alaska’s largest river systems in the last couple of years. And now the famous Bering Sea crab harvest has crashed, too. Even so, Jordan feels a seafood alternative might be taking resources away from conservation efforts.

“There’s a lot of places you can invest money to protect wild salmon without investing in producing an alternative to eat,” said Jordan.
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Salmon are more than food; they are sacred

Eric and Sara Jordan.png
Katherine Rose
/
KCAW
Eric and Sara Jordan stand in front of their troller, the “I Gotta,” which Eric bought from his mother. Jordan believes lab-cultured salmon is a distraction from ongoing work to conserve wild fisheries, which are under threat on many fronts, from climate change to bycatch.

Eric Jordan’s antipathy toward lab-cultured salmon is not just about its potential role in human food consumption. Jordan notes it’s also about an animal which has sustained Alaskans for millennia, and is sacred to many.

“Salmon are sacred,” says Jordan “And part of that is respecting them. And part of that is why we outlawed finfish farming in the state of Alaska is because it doesn’t respect these creatures, which are meant to swim the wild ocean and not to be caged in pens. You’re mistreating a creature that’s destined to swim the wild oceans and find its way back home after traveling thousands of miles. We need to respect the sacred creatures who offer themselves for us to eat.”
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But momentum is growing for cell-cultured foods. David Kaplan, a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts, says Wildtype is far from alone.

“In the US, there is an incredible number and growing number of companies out there trying to grow just about any food you might want to eat or have eaten,” said Kaplan. “There’s a company now trying to emulate that.”

Kaplan runs the university’s lab studies in tissue engineering. In his view, the work has become essential.

“There is absolutely no way we can meet the protein needs and the meat needs that are growing around the world,” he said. “Consumers want meat, they like meat, and that’s not going to go away.”

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Lab-cultured foods and conservation

Justin Kolbeck’s dream of cell-cultured salmon one day being as cheap and accessible as a big mac may sound like a fisherman’s nightmare. But Prof. David Kaplan echoes the sentiment that lab meats are only meant to be a piece of the puzzle in conserving wild populations.

“I think, generally, though, the idea is that this will be a way to help preserve natural cultivars, like of salmon, or tuna, or, you know, clams and mussels, and shrimp, because you’ll have an alternative way to make these things,” Kaplan said. “So it will be less impactful on existing natural sources, which I think is a good thing long term.”

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The Food & Drug Administration has yet to approve any cell-cultured meat for consumption in the US, however approval is expected within the next year. And Wildtype’s Kolbeck is banking on the future, hoping to one day transition his cell-cultured salmon from a niche market, to something more universal.

“We haven’t scaled this up to the point where we can make this product super cheaply yet,” said Kolbeck. “It would be amazing if we could make one of nature’s healthiest foods so accessible that it would be as cheap and available as a Big Mac. That is the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.”

While we may not be seeing the golden arches carrying a lab grown McFish anytime soon, there’s no doubt that the landscape of the seafood industry is changing, and cell-cultured salmon will be making its way to the market sooner than later.

This story is from KCAW, our partner station in Sitka.