Published on Saturday, February 27, 2000 in The Press/Christ Church, NZ
Mutant Fish Dead And Buried, Says Firm

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND -- The salmon farming company last year accused of breeding mutant fish says it has killed all its genetically engineered fish and buried them.

NZ King Salmon Co Ltd chief executive Paul Steere said he had "suspended" its research, now that it had successfully introduced an additional growth hormone gene into chinook salmon and passed the trait down three generations.

The next stage of work would have required significant resources to demonstrate to regulatory authorities that it could produce GE-salmon that were sterile.

Those financial and skill resources would be better applied to its conventional selective breeding programme, which was already at the stage of commercial production.

"All modified salmon have been killed and disposed of, in accordance with containment protocols," Mr Steere said.

But the company would retain frozen sperm from GE-salmon "at a secure location", so it was available to continue the programme in the future.

He denied that the decision to suspend the project was influenced by political and philosophical resistance.

Politicians and lobbyists opposed to genetically engineered food have strongly criticised the salmon project. Green MP Jeanette Fitzsimons disclosed last year that some of the GE-salmon had developed abnormalities such as deformed heads, and Alliance leader Jim Anderton said during the election campaign that he wanted the project stopped at least until a royal commission investigated genetic engineering.

But Mr Steere said that at times the political comment on the GE-salmon was distracting and misinformation vexatious if not mischievous.

"Throughout this project we have ensured high professional standards in both progressing the science involved and in containment for the protection of the environment," he said.

He said the decision was made before the firm was advised earlier this week by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) that it was imposing tougher controls on the research.

King Salmon produce the bulk of New Zealand's 6500 tonnes of salmon farmed every year.

The genetic programme was run at the company's Kaituna hatchery, 18km north-west of Blenheim, and the GE-salmon were developed in a contained laboratory but "grown out" in water races with provision for salmon eggs to be stopped from discharge into a stream.

It was started with an approval under the then Advisory Committee on Novel Genetic Techniques in 1994. Authority was later transferred to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act in 1996, administered by Erma, which last year decided to review the project.

This followed reports that a public relations company last year advised King Salmon never to mention "issues such as deformities, lumps on the head, etc." for fear it would cause panic.

In April last year the company conceded that some fish had been spawned with bigger-than-normal heads. Anti-GE protesters picketed the company's hatchery, demanding an end to what they called "frankenfish" experiments.

As part of Erma's controls announced this week, King Salmon was directed to dispose of the fish from the growth hormone trials at the Blenheim landfill under special conditions, reduce the mesh size in a water race holding the trial fish, and not offer any material from the trials for human or animal consumption, without specific permission.

Yesterday Mr Steere said he welcomed the coming Royal Commission as an opportunity for balanced evaluation of the facts.

Ms Fitzsimons yesterday welcomed the decision, saying it was a victory for public pressure and showed good commercial sense.