FishNet advocates caution on proposed release of Genetically Improved Tilapia


By Arodiegwu Eziukwu

FishNet Alliance, a network of fishers in several African countries have called for a cautious approach to the planned introduction of Genetically Improved Tilapia fish into Nigeria.

The fishermen stated that the ‘artificial’ variety, if allowed into Nigeria would cross breed and eventually lead to extinction of the natural variety and distort the rich biodiversity of the nation.

The coalition appealed to the federal government to with old regulatory approvals for the release of the artificially altered fish variety until the biosafety concerns around the variety is addressed and regulatory authorities strengthened.

The group made its position known on Friday in a statement issued by Stephen Oduware, Coordinator of the FishNet Alliance.

The alliance said the improved tilapia is to be introduced following “an inclusive legal agreement” between WorldFish and Premium Aquaculture Limited through a programme on genetically improved farmed Tilapia (GIFT).

It said that, according to the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission, “This agreement will augur the establishment of a GIFT-based aquaculture industry in Nigeria.

The group noted that Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are collaborating with WorldFish and PAL on this endeavour.

FishNet said the aim of the collaboration is to have WorldFish/PAL GIFT tilapia in Nigerian fish markets by late 2023.

The group stated that it is concerned that apart from the environmental and health challenges, it is unclear which agencies of government have had a hand in this transaction.

“Improved Tilapia will not tackle the root cause of challenges in the fisheries sector in Nigeria. Neither will it solve the hunger and malnutrition problems in the country.

“The issues affecting the Nigerian fisheries sector namely: pollution due to oil and gas and other minerals exploration and exploitation; insecurity and piracy; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities of national and international trawlers

“Indiscriminate activities of trawlers lead to overfishing of both target and non-target species of fish; destruction of the mangrove forests amongst other issues – are matters that government should focus attention on.”

“The genes used to improve the tilapia could have come from a variety of organisms, including other fish, coral, mice, bacteria, or even humans.

“They are basically produced to suit industrial aquaculture models with doubtful regard for possible ecological, environmental concerns.

“Fish farming in Nigeria is done mostly close to the river or in the creeks and there are fears that there could be interactions between the “genetically improved” fish and their relatives in the wild.

“If such fish were genetically engineered, research has shown that releasing as little as sixty fish into a wild population of 60,000 would lead to the extinction of the wild population in less than 40 fish generations.

“The implication of having genetically improved tilapia released into the wild is not known,” FishNet stated.

The alliance noted that a new study found that genetically engineered (genetically modified or GM) zebrafish (Danio rerio) have escaped from fish farms in Brazil and are multiplying in creeks in Brazil.

FishNet Alliance quoted researchers that their results “confirm that escapes from aquaculture facilities are common and could bring severe consequences to local fish populations including endemic, rare, and threatened species.”

They conclude that the production of non-native species should be avoided and transgenic fish should be banned.

“The escape of GM fish from Brazil should be a big wake-up call for our Nigerian Regulators and Government,” FishNet quoted Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, Coordinator of the Food Sovereignty Program with Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Africa as saying.

The group recalled that in 2020 Friends of the Earth USA led an advocacy against the incursion of genetically modified seafood.

Fishnet noted Friends of the Earth USA,released an updated list of 80 grocery retailers, seafood companies, food service companies and restaurants with more than 18,000 that declined to sell genetically engineered salmon.

The group said the action demonstrating a widespread market rejection of the first commercial offerings of the first genetically engineered animal even though it was approved for human consumption in the U.S.

According to the statement, groups such as HOMEF and ERA/ FoEN, GM Free Nigeria that are concerned about genetically engineered organisms in the country.

It stated that they have consistently complained about the weak nature of biosafety regulatory framework in the country.

They have also called for increased transparency, accountability and public engagement before considering approving new life forms into our environment and biodiversity.

The statement also quoted Dr Nnimmo Bassey, Director, HOMEF as opposing the idea while reacting to moves to release genetically improved tilapia to Nigeria.

“The Nigerian environment is already bedevilled with many genetically engineered crops and products of which farmers and consumers are not aware of.

“We are concerned that the introduction of genetically improved tilapia may be a step towards the introduction of genetically engineered fish into the country.

“Moreover, we are not aware that there was consultation with majority fishers and consumers in the country before the so-called inclusive agreement that opened the door for this tilapia specie was signed.”

“As stakeholders concerned with the wellbeing of our aquatic ecosystems, we see the so-called gift of genetically improved tilapia as potentially having adverse effects on our food system and on the livelihoods of millions of fisherfolks and processors.

“We also call on our government to put a stop to approvals of genetically modified fish, animals, or plants in Nigeria until the biosafety regulatory system is strengthened and tightened.

“We also demand that in all cases ppublic participation should be mandatory to ensure transparency and the Precautionary Principle should be adhered to strictly in all cases,” Bassey cautioned.

FishNet also urged the Nigerian government to provide resources to public fisheries and oceanography institutions for healthy management of the nation’s aquatic ecosystems and resources.

The group went further to advice advised against opening the gates to novel varieties, coming under the guise of philanthropy that may negatively affect our food systems.

It said that it would continue to resist moves to foist the genetically improved tilapia and sneak in genetically engineered fish into the Nigerian environment and dining tables.

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