© 2023 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Environmentalists fear a new salmon farm will mean the end of sturgeon in Maryland

Marshyhope Creek is a 37 mile long tributary of the Nanticoke River which runs through Federalsburg, Maryland.
Joel McCord
Marshyhope Creek is a 37 mile long tributary of the Nanticoke River which runs through Federalsburg, Maryland.

Marshyhope Creek, a quiet, tidal estuary on the Eastern Shore, is the only place in Maryland where sturgeon, an endangered fish species that has been around since prehistoric times, are known to spawn. And environmentalists fear that plans for a giant, $300 million indoor salmon farm that would discharge millions of gallons of water a day into the creek could mean the end of the sturgeon.

The fear stems from discharges of the cold, potentially salty water – salmon are a cold water species – into the warm, freshwater creek that would upset the delicate balance necessary for the fish to spawn. And they question whether the state Department of the Environment, which has issued a draft permit for the water discharge, can successfully regulate such an operation.

The size of the building – 25 acres under one roof – is intimidating enough. That’s more than six Super Walmarts in an industrial park on the outskirts of Federalsburg in rural Caroline County. When it’s fully operational, the Norwegian business AquaCon plans to harvest 35 million pounds of salmon a year using recirculated water, and discharge more than two million gallons a day of wastewater into the Marshyhope.

Lee Currey, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s water and science division, told residents during a recent public hearing on the project his office had “never dealt with something like this, and at this scale.”

That caught the attention of Al Girard, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Eastern Shore director. Girard called the project “uncharted territory,” not just because of the discharge of water, but also because of the stormwater running off that giant roof.

“There are a lot of questions,” Girard said. “The MDE really needs to deny this permit and take several steps back so it can ensure that water quality is not harmed in Maryland.”

David Secor, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science lab at Solomons, worries that a production facility of that size has never been tested anywhere.

“There's no track record in terms of the management strategies and contingency plans,” Secor fretted.

The MDE’s Currey said that while the department hasn’t dealt with anything of this size, there’s a lot of information available on recirculating aquaculture systems and that his agency is “familiar with water quality standards.”

Department officials are confident, “that the limits we propose and the special conditions we have in the permit provide all the safeguards necessary,” he said.

The operation would be similar to one at the Institute for Marine and Environmental Technology at the Columbus Center on Pier Five in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, otherwise known as IMET. Among other species, scientists there are raising salmon in 3,200-gallon tanks using city water that’s been treated to mimic the colder saltwater where salmon normally would spawn.

“Everything in this facility is totally computer-controlled,” said Yohnathan Zohar, director of IMET’s Aquaculture Research Center.

Scientists can control the water temperature, anywhere from 50 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit as well as the salinity, “from fresh to saltwater, and anywhere in between.”

The whole operation is self-contained, he said. Even the fish waste is converted to biofuels to run generators.

“We are here in the Inner Harbor,” Zohar said. “We don't take a drop of water from the Inner Harbor, we don't discharge a drop of water to the Inner Harbor.”

He says 99.9 percent of the water in commercial farms, like the one proposed in Federalsburg, would be recycled. The only water that would leave the facility is what’s called purge water. That is what’s left after salmon are treated for something called geosmin, a naturally occurring substance in farm-raised salmon that can make the fish taste like mud.

Zohar said the salmon in that operation would be moved into new tanks of fresh water for several days, which purges the geosmin before releasing the water into the Marshyhope.

The amounts of geosmin in the water “are going to be at or lower than levels of geosmin that have already been recorded in the Marshyhope,” he said.

But that’s not much comfort to Secor, who has studied sturgeon for years.

Sturgeon eggs, known as caviar, develop a sticky substance in freshwater that allows them to stick to the rocks on the bed of the creek while they develop. Even the slightest bit of salinity – half a part per 1000 parts – “would prohibit that magical reaction” and “prohibit effective spawning in the creek,” Secor argued

The only similar discharge that’s been allowed in the U.S. has been in Penobscot Bay, a large saltwater inlet from the Gulf of Maine, “where sturgeon aren’t spawning,” he said.

Maine has issued permits for that land-based salmon farm, but it hasn’t been built yet.

Secor also worries about stormwater running off that roof, pushing sediment into the creek to cover the rocks where there may be sturgeon eggs attached.

“Most of that estuary is bordered with beautiful marshes and swamps and I think that's kept the sediment and silt and they allow the river bottom to be maintained,” Secor said.

Ryan Showalter, an Easton lawyer representing AquaCon, said there would be no salt in the purge water and that the draft MDE permit requires the water temperature to be within two degrees Celsius of the water in the creek.

“We will fully comply with the terms and conditions of that permit,” Showalter said. The water “will go through a heat exchanger and will be heated based upon the temperature occurring in the creek at the particular time of the discharge.”

He insisted that the principal players in AquaCon have successfully “developed [recirculating aquaculture system] facilities around the world, in Scandinavia and Chile and elsewhere.”

As far as the storm water run-off is concerned, he said, state law requires them to manage the water so that it would be no different than if the property remained wooded.

“There will be a large excavation on site and the stormwater management will largely go through infiltration practices,” he explained. “And volumes [of water] will be stored in a pond on site and released at a rate that's less than what is occurring today.”

While fisheries experts debate the operation’s potential effects on the Marshyhope, state and local economic development officials see a potential for jobs.

Debbie Bowden, Caroline County’s economic development director, calls it an opportunity to grow the manufacturing and industrial base in Federalsburg, a town of about 2,700 residents.

“We're looking forward to being able to offer opportunities for manufacturing and food production,” she said, “but with a little bit different take, with basically they are hiring folks that will do wastewater management treatment.”

At the same time, they are looking for a balance between 150 new job opportunities and environmental protections.

“We want to make sure that the natural resources in the environmental concerns, water quality, are protected, and that's why the state has taken that on through MDE,” she said.

Yet Larry DiRe, the Federalsburg town manager, points to other nearby employers who are expanding their operations and adding jobs. It’s not as if the town depends on AquaCon for jobs.

“You don't sacrifice natural resources for the sake of jobs when other businesses and organizations are bringing jobs to the area,” he said. “So, if it happens, it happens, if it’s slowed, it’s slowed.”

The people of Federalsburg appreciate the work, but they have the same concerns the scientists have expressed, he said. And it’s not as if the project will be built tomorrow, he added.

MDE has extended the comment period on its permit to mid-October and the project needs other permits as well. DiRe predicts it could be two years before the first bulldozers show up, if they show up at all.

Editors Note: This story has been updated to clarify how some purge water is recycled.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
Related Content