Image: Fluorescent fish
An aquarium snapshot from 5-D Tropical and Segrest Farms shows genetically altered, fluorescent zebra fish.. California state officials say such fish run afoul of state regulations.
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Citing ethical concerns, state regulators Wednesday refused to allow sales of the first bioengineered household pet, a zebra fish that glows fluorescent. GloFish are expected to go on sale everywhere else next month.

California is the only state with a ban on genetically engineered species, and the Fish and Game Commission said it would not exempt the zebra fish from the law even if escaped fish would not pose a threat to the state’s waterways.

“For me it’s a question of values, it’s not a question of science,” said commissioner Sam Schuchat. “I think selling genetically modified fish as pets is wrong.”

The 3-1 vote came moments after commissioners approved the state’s 14th license for research into genetically modified fish. But commissioners drew the line on permitting widespread sales of a biotech fish for pure visual pleasure.

The normally black-and-silver zebra fish were modified with genes from sea anemones or jellyfish to turn them red or green, and glow under black or ultraviolet lights.

Federal agencies have decided they have no jurisdiction over a bioengineered household pet that is not intended for consumption.

Given California’s extensive review, proponents had looked to its approval to dampen any concerns from other states or consumers that the fish might be harmful to the environment, or to wayward pets or children who happend to consume them.

Opponents view the decision as precedent-setting as they lobby for regulation on the national level.

Yorktown Technologies of Texas, which has the license to market the fish, and the state of Florida, in which the fish are grown, argued before the commission that the altered fish tolerate cold less than natural zebra fish, and they could not survive in California waters.

Environmental and public interest groups and commercial fishermen argued that the fish have been found to survive outside their native waters.

California residents buy 25 million ornamental fish a year, an eighth of the 200 million sold across the nation, Yorktown President Alan Blake said. He estimated that Californians might have bought 2 million of the genetically altered fish each year.

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California adopted its regulations for fear that genetically modified farmed fish, such as salmon, could get loose and devastate the state’s wild populations.

Commissioners balked Wednesday even after acknowledging Californians could readily buy the fish in any neighboring state and bring them home.

“Welcome to the future. Here we are, playing around with the genetic bases of life,” Schumchat said. “At the end of the day, I just don’t think it’s right to produce a new organism just to be a pet.

“To me, this seems like an abuse of the power we have over life, and I’m not prepared to go there today.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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