MAF Biosecurity New Zealand acts on GM aquarium fish in New Zealand

19 July 2007

MAF Biosecurity New Zealand (MAFBNZ) yesterday entered four Christchurch premises in response to information that people at those addresses were breeding and/or selling genetically modified aquarium fish.

The fish, genetically modified Zebra danio (Danio rerio), were brought to MAFBNZ’s attention by concerned members of the public who had seen them for sale online.

MAFBNZ Incursion Manager David Yard says the operation involved seizing and humanely euthanasing approximately 300 tropical aquarium fish that genetic testing confirmed had been genetically modified with a red fluorescent protein to make them a bright red/pink colour.

Mr Yard says the fish, including any that may have been on-sold, pose an extremely low risk in biosecurity terms as they are unlikely to enter the food chain or have any environmental impacts. “They are tropical so are unlikely to be able to survive outside a temperature-controlled tank.

“The presence of these fish in New Zealand has not, however, been authorised and they are illegal new organisms in breach of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act,” he says.

“Our work now is focused on tracing any fish that have been sold. To this end, we’d like to encourage tropical fish enthusiasts who have bright red/pink coloured danios in their possession, or knows someone who has these fish, to contact MAFBNZ on the freephone 0800 80 99 66. Arrangements will be made for the fish to be collected and put down.”

While the fish pose no environmental risk, Mr Yard says it is important they are dealt with by MAFBNZ and humanely destroyed. “At the very least, fish should be disposed of into land-based bins and not in a manner where they could get into waterways.”

It’s thought the fish are either part of, or bred from, a consignment of red danio fish that were imported from Singapore earlier this year and cleared by the then MAF Quarantine Service.

“The fish in question were cleared for entry at the time, due to an incorrect declaration by the importer who believed they were dyed red, rather than genetically modified. The importer’s belief they had been dyed was supported when the fish were examined under UV light and did not fluoresce or glow as is typical with this type of genetic modification.”

David Yard says it’s important that people keeping tropical fish are aware that the importation, possession or sale of genetically modified organisms is illegal in New Zealand.

To report the presence of these fish, call 0800 80 99 66.

For further information, contact:

Lesley Patston, Senior Communications Adviser, 04 894 0163 or 029 894 0163

Photos of the two sample fish are available on request.

Questions and Answers about the GM danios

What are Zebra danio fish?

Danios are a species of tropical fish popular with ornamental fish enthusiasts. They come in many varieties, including the striped Zebra danio. The species Danio rerio is a permitted species for import to New Zealand. Genetically modified danio, however, are not permitted entry for the aquarium trade.

How do we know these fish are GM?

Preliminary results of genetic tests undertaken in a UK laboratory on two of the suspect red/pink danios have shown a positive response for the red fluorescent protein gene, indicating the fish are GM.

Why did we give clearance to the consignment of fish in the first place?

At the time we were acting on the best information available. The importer believed the fish were dyed (which is apparently not uncommon in aquarium fish circles). A veterinarian inspected the fish under UV light (used to pick up fluorescence which is a tell-tale sign of GM in this case). No obvious fluorescence was observed and the importer’s assertion that they were dyed was entirely plausible.

How did we euthanase the fish?

The fish were put to sleep with an aquatic anaesthetic - a product that is registered for anaesthetising and euthanasing fish, and is safe for handlers.

The anaesthetic was administered first to sedate the fish into a state of anaesthesia, after which they were overdosed. The fish were monitored at all times for any signs of distress. A vet with experience in fish health was consulted in order to choose the most humane method for euthanasia.

Once dead, the fish were treated as biohazard waste, bagged accordingly, and disposed of in a method approved by ERMA for the disposal of suspect genetically modified organisms (incineration).

What attempts are being made to find and destroy all the fish out there?

We are using various tracing methodologies to try to locate all the fish from both the original consignment and sales records.

MAF BNZ will also be working directly with members of the aquarium fish community for information and seeking their support in tracing fish.

Isn’t it unlikely you will find all the offspring from this consignment?

We do have to concede that finding and euthanasing all the fish involved is going to be challenging. Even so, we are attempting the most comprehensive job we can. New Zealand has laws around this and it needs to be clear that there are consequences to illegally importing, possessing and selling GM organisms. In the end we will be relying on good public information in this response.

Contact MPI

for general enquiries phone

0800 00 83 33