There are many reasons why 40 years of saving the bay hasn’t saved the Chesapeake Bay, but a shocking example was exposed recently in my hometown of Federalsburg, MD.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (mission: “protect and restore the environment”) has shown its willingness to gamble with the fate of the last 30 or so federally endangered giant Atlantic sturgeon in the Maryland Chesapeake , which still spawn there against winds and tides.
At a public hearing, MDE proposed to let a huge salmon farm, untested on this scale, dump millions of gallons of “purge” water daily into the shallow and narrow Marshyhope Creek, a main tributary of the Nanticoke River. A single day’s flow will sometimes be almost a sixth of the creek’s volume.
Of the Chesapeake’s estimated 11,000 miles of tidal shoreline, you’d be hard-pressed to find a worse place for a spill of this magnitude. Some fisheries scientists call it an “existential threat” to the ancient 10ft-long sturgeon, genetically unique even among others of their species that cling elsewhere in Atlantic river systems.
David Secor, a University of Maryland scientist who has spent a decade studying the Marshyhope sturgeon, acknowledged that “existential threat” is a bold term. “But this is the smallest breeding population of [its] kind in the world,” he said, “very inbred, very sensitive to environmental disturbances, right on the razor’s edge.”
The Atlantic Sturgeon, which spends most of its decades-long life roaming the coastal ocean, returning in the fall to its birthplace in tiny Federalsburg, “has no choice where to be… but AquaCon [the Norwegian company behind the project] done,” Secor said.
At first glance, the company’s proposal seems decent. Fish waste will be put back into circulation and used to generate electricity, and deep wells will mean that no water will be taken from the creek. A building the size of several football fields in the city’s industrial park will employ hundreds of people, pumping out around 35 million pounds of nutritious Atlantic salmon a year.
Indeed, many of the 23 citizens and representatives of environmental groups who voiced their opposition said the project is a welcome alternative to open-water salmon pen farming that has introduced disease to wild fish. It’s just in a horribly bad place.
Even the sole supporter, AquaCon’s consultant, told me after the hearing that he warned the company “that’s a bad place to try to put it…very sensitive.” This consultant, Yonathan Zohar, is the respected and longtime director of aquaculture research at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology.
Something else he said publicly: “In three or four years, with the way the technology advances, I think we won’t even need to offload [water into the river].”
The discharge – more than 2 million gallons of cold water per day subject to the MDE permit – is needed now because the salmon needs to be “purged” of bad-tasting bacteria.
Why not wait a few years until this aquaculture technology is perfected?
If we lived in a world where Murphy’s Law never applied, where “unexpected” wasn’t part of our vocabulary, perhaps the salmon and sturgeon at AquaCon could co-exist peacefully. But we live in a world where even the best fish farms are prone to power outages, burst pipes and mass fish kills piled up in tanks. The modern poultry industry, even with its long history of raising overcrowded animals, would not guarantee that disease and mass mortality of chickens would never occur.
AquaCon’s salmon plant is state-of-the-art on a large scale, and they plan to expand rapidly – even though neither they nor anyone else have done it before near a sensitive little creek like the Marshyhope.
The plant’s expected tonnage of salmon is about three times the entire blue crab harvest from Maryland in the Chesapeake. Massive mortality could force the small Federalsburg sewage treatment plant to treat millions of gallons of contaminated water, something for which no plan yet exists.
AquaCon and MDE insist that they locate the release outside of the sturgeon spawning area. But as state biologists told MDE, the true spawning area extends upstream a mile or more beyond the dump.
The thing is, we’re still learning about these big old fish, which have no doubt kept coming back for thousands of years to the gravelly bottoms that provide the perfect substrate for their eggs.
We didn’t know they were still around until several years ago a 5ft jumped into the skiff of a startled carp angler near Federalsburg. We then learned that despite historical evidence of Chesapeake sturgeon spawning in the spring, Marshyhope fish return in the fall.
We have an idea of the impossibility of restoring this unique group if we lost it. In 1997, the state released thousands of baby sturgeon native to the Hudson River in Nanticoke. They seemed to thrive, but none ever returned to spawn.
This year marks half a century since the Clean Water Act was passed almost unanimously by Congress. It had the objective of zero discharge of pollution into the country’s waters by 1985.
Zero rejection. When did you last hear that?
Here we are, 50 years down the road to cleaner water, with real progress, but with Maryland still too willing to gamble a few hundred jobs against extinction – and on a river where hundreds of millions of dollars in state, federal and private money has been spent to create one of the least degraded waterways in the bay.
“We can’t save the sturgeon with business as usual,” said Mike Naylor, a biologist who testified.
He could have replaced “Chesapeake Bay” with “sturgeon”.
Opinions expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.