NOAA scientist on Atlantic salmon release: We've seen this before

SEATTLE -- As concern about the release of more than 300,000 farmed Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound grows, at least one local scientist is tempering emotions.

We've seen this before, says Michael Rust, a science adviser for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Aquaculture. Rust says the released Atlantic salmon die off, with little impact to our native species.

"Atlantic salmon have been farmed in the Pacific for about four decades," Rust said. "This isn't the first time we've seen large escapes like this. In fact, they were really common in the '80s and '90s."

The conservation group Wild Fish Conservancy says the release  of the salmon poses a threat to struggling wild fish populations and the ecosystem. It alleges the fish spill violates federal pollution laws because it sent farmed salmon, dead carcasses and other debris into the water.

State and tribal fisheries managers are urging anglers to catch as many as possible to protect native fish species.

Rust says hundreds of thousands of the non-native salmon have been released into Puget Sound waters before, with little lasting impact on native fish. Most died off within a year, and none were shown to mate with native salmon.

In the 20th Century, Atlantic salmon were even introduced to Washington, British Columbia and other areas in attempt to make them a sport. None of those attempts were successful, Rust says, and all the Atlantic salmon died out.

"Long-term signature doesn't exist, despite all those introductions and escapes from Atlantic salmon farming in the '80s and '90s," he said. "We really don't see any ecological signature from that."

Rust said scientists will certainly monitor the Atlantic salmon and local fish populations closely in the next year, looking for transfer of diseases or any other negative impacts. But, if history proves anything, he says, native fish will be just fine.

"It's important to take a step back and really look and see this has happened before," Rust said. "It shouldn't be a big reason for concern."

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