The first farmed Chesapeake salmon versus the last of its sturgeon? Proposed Eastern Shore fish farm stirring concern

BALTIMORE — Could the Maryland’s first farmed salmon be a threat to the last of its sturgeon?

Lovers of the sturgeon, a species as old as dinosaurs that was once thought to have disappeared from the Chesapeake Bay, worry its fate could hinge on what happens with a massive salmon farm planned on the banks of a pristine Eastern Shore creek.

Environmentalists and scientists are raising fears that a facility Norwegian company AquaCon plans to build in Federalsburg could inundate the shallow Marshyhope Creek with surges of cold water that could make it inhospitable for a population of Atlantic sturgeon that research has shown returns year after year to spawn in its shallow waters with a gravelly bottom. The creek, along with the Nanticoke River it feeds, is believed to be Maryland’s only sturgeon breeding ground.

For its part, AquaCon says it will bring hundreds of jobs to a community that, like many others on the Eastern Shore, is at least a generation or two removed from anything resembling a booming economy. And it says its aquaculture technology is the future: The type of salmon farm AquaCon is planning, a $300 million indoor facility capable of raising 15,000 tons of salmon a year using recirculated water, is considered a more sustainable alternative to the use of open-water net pens.

What’s best for both fish species, and for Maryland, is now at the center of a debate the state has never seen.

“We have never dealt with something like this, and at this scale,” said Lee Currey, director of the water and science division of the Maryland Department of the Environment, a regulatory agency.

The department is weighing whether to issue AquaCon a permit that would allow it to release more than 2 million gallons of wastewater a day into the narrow and shallow Marshyhope. The permit would guide the amount and contents of the water — as well as what temperature it must be, an important factor because, while salmon rely on water much colder than what’s typical in the Chesapeake, sturgeon swim up the Marshyhope in search of warm waters in which to spawn.

Besides that question, other hurdles remain before the project could become reality, including other types of environmental and health permits and town approvals.

And there are other concerns, including whether the facility would sap the groundwater supply, what would happen if salmon die-offs known to have occurred elsewhere hit its tanks, and what its impact could even be on the flavor of fish native to the Marshyhope. A common problem in salmon farming is buildup of a substance known as geosmin that can give fish an off, mud-like taste.

The company and its supporters — including Gov. Larry Hogan’s office — say the facility can be operated responsibly.

AquaCon declined to comment for this article, but Easton attorney Ryan D. Showalter represents the company.

“AquaCon’s leadership has extensive experience in salmon aquaculture globally and confidence in the technology proposed for use in Maryland,” Showalter said.

The company has said its technology is proven to be successful and sustainable, and that the facility is needed to meet increasing demand and to counter increased transportation costs.

Yonathan Zohar, an adviser to AquaCon and director of the Aquaculture Research Center at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, said he believes the temperature of waters released can be managed, and suggested that the wastewater would contain only negligible amounts of geosmin.

“Obviously it will have to be environmentally conscious,” Zohar said of the facility.

Scientists and environmentalists worry that will be next to impossible on a waterway considered ecologically pristine, far less affected by development and erosion than most other Chesapeake Bay tributaries. For much of the Marshyhope’s length, it looks about as prehistoric as the sturgeon species itself, lined with forest, swamp and marsh.

That’s largely why it works so well for the sturgeon, which have been devastated by overfishing in the past. Their sticky eggs — known to most as the delicacy caviar — need a pebbly surface on which to attach, and a lack of sediment washing into the creek means the gravel doesn’t get smothered.

A portion of the creek is a state and federally protected habitat for the endangered species, extending from its confluence with the Nanticoke River north to the Maryland Route 313 bridge on the south end of Federalsburg. The AquaCon facility is designed to release its wastewater on the other side of the bridge.

David Secor, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science who has spent decades researching sturgeon, is among those asking the company to build its facility somewhere else — away from the sturgeon’s spawning grounds.

“They have no choice, but AquaCon does,” he told a crowd of about 80 people last Wednesday at a public meeting about the facility in Federalsburg.

The project has significant momentum behind it. AquaCon’s website cites “strong backing from both the Maryland Department of Commerce and the Maryland Department of the Environment,” as well as the Caroline County Commissioners and the Federalsburg mayor.

“We look forward to working with you and hope the success of your project will lead to collaboration between the Maryland Department of the Environment and AquaCon AS for many more environmentally sustainable projects in Maryland,” it quotes former Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles, who left the department in May, as saying.

AquaCon has plans to eventually build three more facilities in Caroline and Dorchester counties.

The company also has a memorandum of understanding to collaborate with Zohar and IMET, a unit of the University System of Maryland — and Zohar was the only person at the recent public meeting to speak in favor of the project. He also wrote an open letter saying AquaCon “impressed me as a very environmentally conscious and responsible company,” and told The Baltimore Sun it was written at the behest of Hogan administration officials.

Mike Ricci, a Hogan spokesman, said that after Zohar expressed support for the Aquacon project at a meeting of state and Israeli officials on aquaculture cooperation, “I’m sure someone said he was welcome to write a letter.”

“We always welcome engagement from stakeholders on projects of public import — especially one that has such great potential for the state and the region,” Ricci said.

The residents who came to the public meeting were more focused on risks. They included Frank Adams, a resident who said that as founder of the Federalsburg Economic Development Committee, he has worked to bring many new businesses to town.

“I’m not sure this one is one we should have,” Adams said.

“We are being made Guinea pigs,” added resident Susan Andrew, expressing fears about the facility’s plans to draw millions of gallons of water from underground aquifers.

She said she fears it could lead to sinkholes or make her well run dry.

“We don’t need jobs at any cost,” she said. “Not at the ruination of the town.”

A Maryland Department of Natural Resources official has weighed in saying changes are needed to the facility’s proposed wastewater permit to protect the sturgeon.

Tony Redman, director of the department’s environmental review program, suggested, for example, that any changes in creek temperature attributed to the salmon farm be limited by a percentage change. The draft permit suggests that the wastewater would not be allowed to change the creek temperature by more than 2 degrees Celsius within a 24-hour period.

Showalter said AquaCon “appreciates the opportunity to hear and understand public comments and looks forward to working with [MDE] to ensure they are addressed.”

State environmental officials will be accepting public input on the facility’s wastewater permit through Oct. 17, after which it could release a revised permit that could be subject to further public review. They said it’s possible, though unlikely, they would deny the permit outright.

Currey said the public input will be especially important given the environmental concerns and the uncharted territory the state could be entering with a new salmon farm: “We’re really looking forward to the feedback.”