Proposed salmon farming raises concern for Maryland’s last sturgeon

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Lovers of sturgeon, a species as ancient as dinosaurs once thought to have disappeared from the Chesapeake Bay, fear its fate hinges on what happens with a huge salmon farm planned for the shores of a pristine east coast creek.

Conservationists and scientists fear a facility Norway’s AquaCon plans to build in Federalsburg could flood the shallow Marshyhope Creek with waves of cold water that could make it inhospitable to a population of Atlantic sturgeon whose research has shown to return year after year to spawn in its shallow, gravelly bottom waters. The creek, along with the Nanticoke River it feeds, is believed to be the only breeding ground for Maryland sturgeons.

For its part, AquaCon says it will bring hundreds of jobs to a community that, like many others on the east coast, is at least a generation or two away from anything resembling a booming economy. . And he says his aquaculture technology is the future: the type of salmon farming AquaCon envisions, a $300 million indoor facility capable of raising 15,000 tons of salmon a year using recycled water, is considered a more sustainable alternative to using open water. net enclosure.

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

“We’ve never dealt with anything like this, and on this scale,” said Lee Currey, director of the water and science division of the Maryland Department of Environment, a regulatory agency.

The department plans to issue AquaCon a permit that would allow it to discharge more than 2 million gallons of sewage per day into the narrow, shallow Marshyhope. The permit would guide the amount and content of the water – as well as the temperature it must be at, an important factor because, while salmon depend on much colder water than is typical in the Chesapeake, the sturgeon swims up the Marshyhope in search of warm waters. in which to breed.

Besides this issue, other hurdles remain before the project becomes a reality, including other types of environmental and health permits and municipal approvals.

And there are other concerns, including whether the facility would undermine groundwater supplies, what would happen if salmon deaths known to have occurred elsewhere hit its reservoirs, and even what its impact might be on the flavor of Marshyhope’s native fish. A common problem in salmon farming is the buildup of a substance known as geosmin which can cause fish to taste muddy.

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

AquaCon declined to comment, but Easton’s attorney, Ryan D. Showalter, is representing the company.

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

The company said its technology has proven to be efficient and durable, and the installation is needed to meet growing demand and to counter rising transportation costs.

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

“Obviously it will have to be environmentally friendly,” Zohar said of the installation.

Scientists and environmentalists fear that is nearly 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, bordered by forests, swamps and marshes.

That’s a big part of why it works so well for sturgeon, which has been devastated by overfishing in the past. Their sticky eggs – known to most as delicate caviar – need a rocky surface to attach themselves to, and a lack of sediment flowing into the stream means the gravel doesn’t choke.

Part of the creek is state and federally protected habitat for endangered species, extending from its confluence with the Nanticoke River north to the Maryland Route 313 bridge at the south end of Federalsburg . The AquaCon facility is designed to discharge its wastewater across the bridge.

David Secor, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Environmental Science Center who has spent decades researching sturgeon, is among those calling on the company to build its facility elsewhere, away from the spawning grounds of the ‘sturgeon.

“They don’t have a choice, but AquaCon does it,” he told a crowd of about 80 at a recent town hall meeting at the Federalsburg facility.

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

AquaCon 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 penned 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 request of officials at the Hogan administration.

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

“We always welcome stakeholder engagement on projects of public importance – especially those that have such great potential for the state and the region,” Ricci said.

Residents who came to the public meeting were more focused on the risks. Among them is Frank Adams, a resident who said that as founder of the Federalsburg Economic Development Committee, he worked to bring many new businesses to town.

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

“We’re being guinea pigs,” added resident Susan Andrew, expressing concern over the facility’s plans to draw millions of gallons of water from underground aquifers.

She said she feared it would lead to sinkholes or dry her out.

“We don’t need jobs at all costs,” she said. “Not to ruin the city.”

A Maryland Department of Natural Resources official said amendments are needed to the facility’s proposed sewage permit to protect the sturgeon.

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

State environment officials will accept public comments on the facility’s sewage treatment permit until Oct. 17, after which they may issue a revised permit that may be subject to further public review. thorough. They said it was possible, though unlikely, that they would refuse the permit altogether.

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