State wildlife managers on Wednesday recommended that California allow pet stores to sell a small tropical fish that has been genetically manipulated so that it seems to glow red in daylight or ultraviolet light.
But a final decision by the California Fish and Game Commission isn't likely at least until January and possibly not until May because of an executive order by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger halting all regulatory changes for 180 days.
Several conservation and consumer groups vowed to fight the release of this first transgenic pet -- the trademarked GloFish -- which biotech entrepreneurs plan to begin selling Jan. 5 in pet stores elsewhere in the United States.
California is the only state in the nation that forbids the possession, sale or transportation of genetically modified fish -- without permits and safeguards that ensure that the transgenic species can't escape and crossbreed with other fish.
Yorktown Technologies of Austin, Texas, and state officials in Florida, where the transgenic fish are being raised, have asked California to make an exception for a zebra fish infused with the red fluorescent gene of a sea anemone.
California Fish and Game officials spent months checking into claims that the fish would not cause ecological havoc if they escaped into the wild.
"Our job is to protect the waters and the wildlife of the state," said Edmund Pert, chief of the fisheries program at the state Department of Fish and Game. He and other department officials were satisfied after a broad spectrum of scientists assured them that the environmental risks would be negligible.
The 1 1/2-inch-long tropical zebra fish, native to the tropical Ganges River in India, do not live long outside of heated water in fish tanks in the U.S., government scientists say. Despite decades of biomedical research using zebra fish as test subjects, none has established a colony in California waters.
Scientists believe that the fluorescent gene would, if anything, make it harder for zebra fish to survive in the wild. They also concluded that the fluorescent gene was not likely to enter the food chain or cause an allergic or toxic reaction if someone were to eat one of the tiny fish.
Alan Blake, executive officer of Yorktown Technologies, said he was pleased that California regulators, "have agreed that fluorescent zebra fish are safe."
Yet Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), along with a Pacific Coast fishermen's group, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Center for Food Safety and other groups challenged the notion that these fish could be proved safe.
They urged the Fish and Game Commission, which will first consider the matter Dec. 3, not to set any precedent that could "usher in a new era of unregulated transgenic pets."
As with other nonnative species, the concern is that the genetically enhanced species could disrupt the ecological equilibrium and lead to the extinction of native fish.
Sam Schuchat, one of the five Fish and Game commissioners, said he was keeping an open mind. "As a lifelong reader of science fiction, which often includes genetically modified organisms, it's interesting that we are getting to the point where this is real."