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Background From King Salmon On Engineered Fish

New Zealand King Salmon
Genetically Modified Salmon Programme


The NZ King Salmon Co Ltd is the world’s largest single farmer of Chinook salmon and has increasingly become so, as overseas farmers have switched to other species, particularly Atlantics.

The company operates a very small-scale research project into growth-enhanced salmon using genetic manipulation techniques.

This is a minor part of the company’s operations and is seen as research for the future. The company’s core business is the production of non-genetically modified fresh and processed salmon and salmon products for both export and domestic markets.

NZ produces around 6,000 tonnes of salmon per year. The world production of farmed salmon was in excess of 600,000 tonnes in 1998. To ensure the long-term sustainability of the company various strategies are constantly reviewed.

One of these is the world-leading family breeding programme at Kaituna. This programme involves the tracking of individual salmon and the crossing of top fish from the monitored group targeted towards specific strategies including harvest size and timing. This programme is similar to the world-leading natural selection and breeding programmes used by NZ dairy and sheep breeders. It involves identifying desirable traits, and breeding ‘the best from the best”. The natural family breeding programme is, we believe, the first of its kind in the world involving salmon and remains the most advanced programme known at this time. It does not involve any genetic modification through genetic engineering.

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The company has also attempted to grow organic salmon. This was abandoned as a result of cost implications. However NZKSCo continues to test the feasibility of this type of production system and this may be a development opportunity available in the future.

The genetic modification project is only one development option that is being considered for the future. Long term sustainability of the company and further growth is very important to the shareholders, the company staff (of which there are currently 280) to our customers, and to New Zealand.

Recent publicity has generated many questions. Below we attempt to answer the most commonly asked questions

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the company involved in this GM programme?
The ability to improve productivity through faster growth and a more uniform population size aligned to market demand is a continuous improvement objective for the company. The company seeks to be more efficient and effective as it grows production and supplies high quality food products to the world.

The genetic modification programme began in 1994 as a result of a contract with a North American company, which had successfully developed a gene construct containing the growth hormone of the Chinook Salmon in combination with an ocean pout promoter. This allowed the gene to be ‘added’ to live natural salmonids with the expectation of enhanced growth. NZKS was interested in this technology as it sought to improve upon the significant costs and long time-frame to grow salmon to market size and attributes.

The genetic programme is only one of many programmes the company continues to develop for the purpose of cost and yield improvement. Disregarding the start up costs of the genetic programme (largely relating to isolation and containment requirements) the annual operating cost of the genetic programme is less than 10% of our total breeding research spend with the priority and effort focusing on the natural family selection breeding programme.

The fact that the growth hormone gene was from Chinook salmon was of interest to our company. Although that hormone has been successfully introduced in similar programmes overseas to other salmonid species such as trout and other salmon, we considered the ability to avoid ‘cross-species’ material was more likely to be successful and acceptable to consumers.

Was the programme secret?
The programme is not secret.

The original investment in Transgen Partnership (which effected the contract for the gene construct) was mentioned in the annual (public) report of Salmond Smith Biolab in 1994. The programme is known within the NZ scientific community, the Industry, has been visited by key customers and United Nations experts. It is well known to all staff.

The company has maintained strict adherence to the regulatory protocols required by the Interim Assessment Group (IAG) led by the Ministry of the Environment, which in turn has resulted in public record of the programme. On the 31st July 1998, the ‘New Zealand Gazette’ published details of the approved programme (page 2393) and details of the containment facilities and requirements (page 2441) as part of an order in council transferring previous approvals from the IAG into the new HSNO Act.

The company has never denied its genetic involvement - it is a long-term programme, without significant milestones worthy of public comment and also has some commercial sensitivity in terms of the detailed growth results being observed.

The programme is under continuous review, having regard for the changing economics and resources required.

What does the programme entail?
In 1994, 1995 and 1996 quantities of newly fertilised salmon eggs were micro-injected with the gene construct. Each year less than 1% of the injected eggs resulted in identifiable growth enhanced salmon.

The growth identified (using DNA micro-satellite technology) eggs were then isolated in a hatchery building under strict monitoring and containment controls. Further screening for the fastest growing fish allowed those identified to be individually tagged by the insertion of a small micro chip to further improve identification and monitoring.

Upon reaching size for normal transfer to salt water the growth-enhanced salmon were transferred to isolated external ponds within the research hatchery grounds with additional containment measures, such as high fencing, pond netting, and a weir, had been provided. All transfers, monitoring and other handling is logged and reconciled for population totals. In April 1999, 661 salmon were in the project.

The growth-enhanced salmon reach an early age of maturity enabling their eggs to be fertilised and crossed with natural salmon after one year and by 1998 we were able to achieve third generation salmon.

It is important for the success of such a programme to ensure the growth enhancement is
a) replicated in subsequent generations and
b) without any degrading effect on the salmon or product for ultimate consumption.
In addition work is required on positioning of the additional growth hormone gene within the salmon, the constituents of the salmon and any variability with natural salmon and the ability to ensure triploid status (sterility) to avoid any risk of cross-breeding, before commercial production would be possible.

We expect the required work to take a further 10 years before commercial product is possible, if indeed it is desirable.

What is the objective in the genetic salmon programme?
The usual life cycle of farmed Chinook salmon to acceptable harvest weight is between 26 and 33 months. This is able to be only slightly manipulated by smolt management.

By enhancing the growth rate through adding an additional grow hormone gene it is expected that the growth period will reduce significantly as the fish grow more quickly. This would enable the farms to produce more fish, thus reducing costs, which in turn, may be further reduced by the possibility of an improvement in the food conversion ratio. Indications are of a doubling (or more) in growth rate.

Reducing the time to grow to market size is important – it provides a highly nutritional food product at a more affordable price.

Do you use rat and frog genes?
Absolute nonsense – absolutely no.

There has never been any genetic work carried out other than with the Chinook growth hormone and the Ocean Pout promoter. We have no interest in other genes and these have never been contemplated.

What about abnormal fish with large heads?
In any breeding programme scientists expect unusual characteristics. When micro-injecting the gene-construct into the eggs, it was sometimes difficult to avoid more than one copy of the gene construct being injected. That can result in some unusually fast-growing fish, which also exhibited characteristics of additional forehead cartilage and larger head size than normal in some fish. An objective of the current work is to isolate families with only one copy of the gene construct – this requires management through at least four generations.

Fish suspected of unusual characteristics or with indications of stress or potential discomfort are removed from the family lines of the programme to reduce replication in future generations. It has also been apparent that unusual characteristics have usually declined through subsequent generations. One of the purposes of the research is to demonstrate that we can produce product that is not significantly different from unmodified salmon.

Such unusual characteristics are an expected part of the early research stage of this project. It does not reflect a project gone wrong, indeed the retention of lines displaying normal body characteristics yet of a substantially larger weight for age, indicates good success and progress.

How can people be sure the programme is safe?
The development of this programme was made with the full approval of the regulatory authorities. In earlier stages, requirements for approval were voluntary. However NZKS was determined to ensure full consultation and external expertise was sought and followed, in addition to its own internal guidelines and policies. This research work has therefore been under the approvals of the Advisory Committee on Novel Genetic Techniques whose role has now been taken over by the requirements of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 managed by the Environmental Risk Management Authority. Further reviews and guidance is expected from ERMA to ensure compliance with best practices for this type of research.

The research is contained at the Kaituna Hatchery where strict controls are applied. All populations developed are subject to accurate record-keeping and trace-back through to eventual death and disposal. All waterways are subject to fine physical screening barriers to ensure no modified live material can escape from the containment facility.

All project fish are physically isolated from other fish being developed for other programmes.

The research hatchery has intruder alarms and silent alarms direct to a security company to ensure an acceptable standard of protection. All visitors and their purpose are logged.

Composite random samples of water discharges are tested for DNA material.

In the unlikely event of catastrophic destruction of the hatchery through earthquake etc., and the escape of live material into the surrounding waterways, it is considered unlikely that the modified salmon, used to a farmed diet and limited range environment, would survive in the wild. Neither would they be likely to meet and spawn with wild salmon families, which are considered rare in this area. The risk of all three detrimental elements converging is considered very, very low.

What benefits have been achieved so far?
The early stages of the research have confirmed a substantial improvement in growth rates is possible and achievable with salmon with otherwise natural characteristics.

Much work needs to be done on the sustainability of the improved growth rate through future generations and the effect of take-up with crosses from ordinary salmon and crosses with modified salmon.

Research is required on the inheritance of the copy gene and where this is located and on ensuring the natural replication of salmon composition, including structure, flesh and muscle profiles, fat ratios and fat placement. All this work needs to be confirmed before the company can seek permission for field testing.

The disciplines and standards developed for this programme have been invaluable in progressing the main body of breeding research - the family Broodstock selection programme. Determination of a breeding index, pit-tag monitoring and DNA micro-satellite technology have all been extremely helpful developments.

Will any product declared fit for human consumption be labelled?
Yes. All product, modified in any way by genetic change, will be labelled if it is released into the food chain.

We are a long way (many years) from determining to move to a commercial phase for human consumption. Regardless of scientific achievement, this product will not be a success unless consumers are happy to accept the method and efficacy of this form of breeding.

How do we know your ordinary salmon is safe?
In addition to the regulatory obligations, King Salmon’s own in-house policies and the professional ethics of the company scientists and personnel involved – all of which extensively ensure caution and proper isolation from our established salmon programmes, there is one over-riding reason for confidence that our salmon is safe.

That is: NZ King Salmon knows that without consumer acceptance and confidence in its products, the company has no business.

No modified salmon is in the NZ or export food chain from this research programme. No modified salmon has been consumed in NZ, not even in testing.

Even the suggestion of irregular activity can impact the company’s sales and overall effort and the company has been mindful of external threats to this research through ill-informed comment and innuendo.

We believe this is valid scientific research with sufficient controls and containment in place to provide confidence on its isolation. It is however significant time away from a proven product that meets consumer acceptance and economic value.

Where do you dispose of dead modified salmon?
All dead eggs and fish from the research hatchery are collected daily and numbers recorded. Dead fish have their identifier PIT tag removed and low levels of fish mortalities are disposed of in formic acid. Larger volumes of mortalities are disposed of periodically by burial in the Blenheim landfill. Written permission is obtained from ERMA and the Marlborough District Council. Disposal is via a skip supplied by a specialist outside contractor and is supervised both during transport and burial by one of King Salmon’s staff to ensure disposal is properly carried out.

Dead salmon from our seafarms are collected and disposed of outside the 12 mile limit within a defined deep water area. Conditions are attached to the permit issued for this purpose by the Maritime Safety Authority which also received input into this disposal method from the Marlborough District Council, the Ministry of Fisheries, SEAFIC and the Department of Conservation.


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