- A Canadian firm developing genetically modified fish
says it aims to apply for regulatory approval by the end of 2004.
- Aqua Bounty has developed salmon which grow several times
faster than normal.
- Environmentalists oppose the technology because, they
say, studies have shown how escaped GM fish could breed with and damage
populations of wild salmon.
- But Aqua Bounty, based in Newfoundland, says such impacts
can be avoided by making the novel fish sterile and growing them in isolated
- If regulatory approval is granted, it could open the
door to other varieties of GM fish; about 30 different types have so far
been created in various laboratories around the globe.
- The BBC World Service programme Earth Files travelled
to Canada to see Aqua Bounty's transgenic salmon.
- Consumer safety
- In a giant tank in the research laboratory of the Ocean
Sciences Centre, the company is rearing modified fish alongside natural
counterparts of the same age. The difference in size is startling.
- "In the early stages, the transgenic fish will grow
four or five times faster," says Aqua Bounty's president and CEO Dr
- "Right now, these growth hormone transgenic fish
are about three-and-a-half kilogrammes, and the control salmon would be
about a kilogramme."
- The aim is not to produce bigger fish, but to bring them
to market size faster, if possible within a year.
- Aqua Bounty has been discussing its salmon with the United
States Food and Drug Administration for nearly a decade.
- The company has submitted a substantial amount of data
in response to questions from the FDA and other US government agencies,
such as the National Marine Fisheries Service.
- It believes this data shows that the enhanced fish can
be grown and eaten safely, and Dr Fletcher hopes to make a formal application
for FDA approval before the end of the year; processing that application
would take a mandatory six months.
- Fish competition
- Environmental groups are concerned that GM salmon would
escape from farms, and could devastate populations of wild salmon.
- Escapes of farmed fish are routine - it is estimated
about two million escape from farms in Europe each year.
- Last year, a team led by Dr Phil McGinnity, from Ireland's
Marine Institute, published research showing that interbreeding between
farmed and wild salmon is leading to a decline in fitness.
- "Principally we observed hybrids - the results of
interbreeding between farmed salmon and the wild population - and this
showed there was reduced survival compared with the wild salmon."
- The same 10-year study also showed that farmed salmon
are forcing their wild relatives out of their native rivers.
- "The farmed salmon grew faster, and we found that
they displaced wild fish; and if you're being out-competed and pushed out,
you're not going to survive, you're going to die," said Dr McGinnity.
- "With GM, the situation is likely to be comparable
and is likely to be more extreme."
- Inland tanks
- Sue Scott, from the conservation group the Atlantic Salmon
Federation, told the Earth Files that wild populations had already declined
markedly over the last 10 years; and interactions between wild and farmed
salmon were a major cause.
- "It can only be assumed that the transgenic salmon
will cause the same problems as the farmed salmon; only because they're
bigger, they're really going to compete for food and habitat," she
- "We want to see a moratorium on transgenic salmon
until we can safeguard against any problems which may result from this
- However, Aqua Bounty says there are ways to ensure that
transgenic salmon do not escape; and that if they do, they cannot breed
with wild relatives.
- It plans only to sell sterile females which do not lay
eggs, so there will be no cross-breeding. It says the sterilisation process,
known as triploidisation, is around 99.8% effective.
- Triploid fish have three sets of chromosomes in each
cell rather than the usual two sets; triploid females do not lay eggs.
- Aqua Bounty also says that escapes could be prevented
altogether by isolating the fish in inland pools rather than in underwater
pens in rivers and coastal waters.
- Is there a demand?
- With the benefits that genetic manipulation could potentially
bring - faster growth, improved flesh quality, disease resistance, cold
tolerance - it would be easy to assume that the aquaculture industry would
be keen on transgenic fish.
- But Nell Hulse, president of the Canadian Aquaculture
Industry Alliance, said the farmers she represented were against it.
- "We do not support the commercial growth of genetically
modified salmon on our farms, and that policy won't change until a number
of things have taken place," she told the Earth Files.
- "It would have to be declared very clearly to be
a safe product, from the point of view of human health; and more importantly,
there has to be a market demand."
- Genetically modified crops are widely used in North America,
though they are regarded with intense suspicion in many other parts of
the world. But there are signs that transgenic fish might not be as well
- The pressure group the Centre for Food Safety lists 468
businesses in the US which it says have pledged not to buy or sell GM fish.
- Coming soon
- One is the four-star New York seafood restaurant Le Bernardin,
once named top restaurant in the US.
- "It's totally unnatural, and it could actually be
dangerous," said executive chef Eric Ripert.
- "The fact that they are not going to let us know
on the markets where we buy the fish whether they are genetically modified
or not is to me a big issue, and I refuse to buy that fish.
- "We find wild salmon in North America and in Scotland
and in Norway; and I think if we are reasonable in fishing and we don't
over-fish, we can keep those stocks forever and enjoy these natural fish."
- The Food and Drug Administration keeps negotiations secret
and will not say how it views Aqua Bounty's salmon; neither will it say
whether it is in discussion with other companies on other transgenic fish
- Garth Fletcher is convinced that GM fish will inevitably
come to market; and if his negotiations with the FDA go well, he says that
could be as early as next year.
- "Test marketing could be done just after FDA approval,
and that could be 2005; commercial sales, you're looking at two to three
years beyond that."
- © BBC MMIV