Genetically modified salmon, which can grow six times as fast as normal fish and cost half as much to feed, will not be grown in Britain despite the economic benefits they offer, Scotland's salmon farmers pledged yesterday.
The GM fish, which have been developed by an American company, are now only "about a year" away from commercial sale, it was revealed yesterday, but environmental groups said they represented a serious problem for the environment. Farmed GM salmon escaping to lochs, rivers or the sea could transfer their genes to wild stocks of fish and pose a serious and potentially fatal threat to them, they claimed.
The £260m Scottish salmon farming industry, based mainly in the Highlands and Islands regions, employs 6,500 people and produces 120,000 tons of fish a year. Its umbrella body, Scottish Quality Salmon, said yesterday the industry "rejected any use of transgenic salmon". "There is simply not enough scientific evidence of what the long-term effects might be, and until that is much more apparent, it is not a road we want to go down," said a spokeswoman, Julie Edgar.
The GM salmon are being developed in Prince Edward Island, Canada, by the American bioengineering company A/F Protein, Inc. The firm has altered the fish growth hormone gene, resulting in a species that already has its own trademark - the AquAdvantage Salmon - and grows at an initial rate of four to six times faster than standard fish.
Dr Arnold Sutterlin, the manager of Aqua Bounty Farms where the GM salmon are being grown, said the company was now seeking approval from the US Food and Drugs and Administration for them to be sold commercially and that the process "might take a year".
Recent scientific research, however, has suggested that even a single fish with enhanced growth genes escaping into the wild could lead to the destruction of wild salmon populations. William Muir and Richard Howard, from Purdue University in the US, found that larger modified fish attracted four times as many mates as wild fish and so rapidly spread their genes. But the resulting progeny were weaker, leadingto the population going extinct. "Once these things escape there is good evidence they can very seriously damage the wild population," said Dr Doug Parr, the chief scientific adviser to Greenpeace.
There have been large numbers of escapes from salmon farms in Scotland, with figures collated by Friends of the Earth suggesting that at least 700,000 fish have got free in the past three years. Salmon fishermen are already worried that interbreeding will damage the wild stock, and are angry at disease spreading to wild fish from the farm cages, in particular infestation with sea lice. "There are problems enough as it is with escapes of normal farmed fish," said Jeremy Read, director of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, the main UK salmon research organisation.