Wellington, Feb 25 NZPA
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," he said in a statement.
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.
"Our decision is purely based on the best placement of our resources, which, for a company of our size, are limited,’ said Mr Steere.
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 mis-information 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, based on the company’s own review of its research, was made before it was advised earlier this week by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) that it was imposing tougher controls on the research.
"The control requirements had no bearing on the commercial priorities of the company’s overall requirements," he said.
The company – a wholly owned subsidiary of Karamea Holdings and ultimately owned by the Malaysian-based Tiong Group – was reported to have originally moved into genetic engineering to rectify a salmon-growing problem at its farms.
Thomas Tiong, speaking on behalf of the Tiong Group, said last night that commercial operations would "not be affected" by today’s announcement.
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 northwest 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 to ensure it met the standards of the latest legislation.
The Erma review 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 a small percentage of 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 a 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.
Today, Mr Steere said he welcomed the coming Royal Commission – whose terms of reference are expected to soon be announced by the Government – as an opportunity for balanced evaluation of the facts.
"We have the expertise and abilities for NZ to be at the forefront of a proven beneficial advancement," he said.
Mr Steere said the suspension of the research would not cause redundancies.
He paid tribute to the scientists involved, Dr Jane Symonds and Dr Seumas Walker.
They had shown GE-salmon could be grown three to five times faster than normal, with significant cost reductions, and able to inherit the growth trait through successive generations.
Ms Fitzsimons tonight welcomed the decision, saying it was avictory for public pressure and showed good commercial sense.
WGT kca © 25/02/00 18-46NZ