Facing growing public pushback, a Norwegian company hoping to build a large indoor salmon farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has — at least for now — dropped its bid for a permit to discharge wastewater into the only waterway in the state where endangered Atlantic sturgeon are known to spawn.

AquaCon Maryland LLC notified the Maryland Department of the Environment on Oct. 14 that it was withdrawing its application to discharge up to 2.3 million gallons a day of treated “purge” water into Marshyhope Creek, a tributary of the Nanticoke River.

A group of kayakers organized by Shore Rivers and the Upstream Alliance recently gathered to protest a proposal for a large, land-based salmon farm near Federalsburg, MD, that would have discharged treated wastewater into a Nanticoke River tributary. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

The company said in a press release that the public comments on the application “drew attention to Atlantic sturgeons’ use of Marshyhope Creek, which warrants further consideration and evaluation.”

In an email, Ryan Showalter, the company’s Easton-based lawyer, said that AquaCon has not given up on developing an 18-acre salmon production facility in Federalsburg. Expecting that MDE would require additional information to address “uncertainties” about the facility’s impacts on the sturgeon, Showalter said, company officials decided to withdraw the application and investigate alternatives to year-round discharge into the Marshyhope.

MDE gave preliminary approval to the company’s permit in June. Still, since then, the project has drawn pushback from scientists, environmentalists, and residents concerned about the plant’s potential impact on the creek and its fish, particularly sturgeon. An August hearing drew more than 100 people, with nearly all who spoke opposing it.

Researchers, local residents and representatives from environmental groups gathered at a state hearing on Aug. 10, 2022, to discuss a potential discharge permit for a salmon farm on Maryland’s Marshyhope Creek. Credit: Jeremy Cox / Bay Journal Media

Yonathan Zohar, director of the Aquaculture Research Center at the University System of Maryland’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology and an adviser to the company, said after the August hearing he had recommended that AquaCon executives drop pursuit of the Federalsburg site because of the potential risks to sturgeon. 

“If it were all managed optimally, there would be no harm to the sturgeon,” he said, “but it’s not a good site to pursue, just because of the sensitivity.”

AquaCon’s announcement came 11 days after Federalsburg town leaders signaled their strongest concerns with the project. In an Oct. 3 letter to MDE, Mayor Kimberly J. Abner and the four council members urged the agency to deny the discharge permit or at least withhold it until concerns are addressed.

“The mayor and council strongly believe that issuance of a final discharge permit at this time is premature and contrary to the public interest,” they wrote. The Federalsburg officials pointed to a Sept. 19 hearing during which an AquaCon-affiliated attorney left several questions from the audience unanswered. 

At the center of those concerns is a bacteria-derived substance called geosmin. While naturally occurring — the cause of the tangy smell in the air after heavy rain — geosmin is responsible for the muddy flavor in much farm-raised fish. AquaCon purges its salmon of geosmin to remove that “off” flavor and releases it as part of the discharges into the Marshyhope.

But biologists who have studied the river’s sturgeon warned that inundating the Marshyhope with such high quantities of geosmin could upend its fragile ecosystem and impact the endangered fish. A leading sturgeon researcher greeted the permit withdrawal with relief.

“I am delighted that AquaCon made the sensible decision to withdraw the application,” said Dave Secor, a fisheries ecologist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Farmed salmon traditionally have been raised to market size in open sea pens. Parasites, disease and regulatory limits have fueled a shift to land-based aquaculture, particularly to supply a growing U.S. demand for the fish. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

AquaCon had proposed producing up to 15,000 metric tons of salmon a year at the Federalsburg facility. Its recirculating aquaculture system would raise the fish in a series of large indoor tanks filled with water from wells.  That water would be almost entirely recycled, with fish waste filtered out and converted to methane to supply energy for the operation.

“Despite an initial misstep in siting the plant on one of Maryland’s most vulnerable estuaries,” Secor added, “we should recognize that AquaCon seeks to develop sustainable aquaculture practices, building on Maryland innovation at [the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology]. I hope AquaCon can work with the state’s environmental experts to find a more sustainable location to site its planned operations.”

AquaCon’s estimated that the discharge volume could make up as much as 15% of the Marshyhope’s flows during peak periods. Calculations by Judith Stribling, a retired Salisbury University biology professor, suggest that during the lowest average monthly flow recorded on the Marshyhope between 2000 and 2020, the discharges would have accounted for 20% of the flow.

And when looking at the days with the lowest flows during that period, she said the purge water would have matched the river’s natural flows drop for drop.

“That site was wholly inappropriate,” said Stribling, a former president of the Friends of the Nanticoke River. “And the fact that AquaCon didn’t know about the Atlantic sturgeon population when it developed the plans means it had substantial regrouping to do.”

Choptank Riverkeeper Matt Pluta credited public resistance for swaying the company’s plans.

Pluta said the project was simply too big, with too much-proposed stormwater runoff from its 18-acre building and too much wastewater potentially piped into a comparatively small waterway. He and Stribling said they hope that AquaCon will postpone its Eastern Shore developments until the technology is available — due out within a few years, according to industry experts — that negates the need for discharging the purge water off-site. 

“I’d like to see something more in character with our area and not the massive operation proposed,” Pluta said. “The unknowns of all that weighed on us hard. We look forward to working with AquaCon and MDE on how this can happen without impacting waterways.”

The building to house a land-based salmon farm recently proposed for a site near Federalsburg, MD, would have covered 18 acres. Credit: Jeremy Cox / Bay Journal Media

Showalter, the company lawyer, said the technology cannot do without the purging operation and subsequent discharge.  He added without elaboration that there might be alternatives to discharging during certain periods.

“AquaCon sincerely appreciates MDE’s evaluation of our project to date,” said AquaCon CEO Pål Haldorsen, “and looks forward to continuing to work with MDE to secure permits that authorize aquacultural production while protecting the water quality and health of the Bay ecosystem.”

The company release indicated it would continue to work with state and local authorities to develop a land-based salmon farm “in the Mid-Atlantic region, with a focus on the state of Maryland.”

That wording indicated the company might be shifting its efforts to other sites.  AquaCon had originally said it was considering four locations on the Eastern Shore — two in Caroline County and at least one in Dorchester County. It abandoned one proposed site near Cambridge after being denied a zoning variance. The company also talked with MDE and local officials about a site in Denton on the Choptank River, but Showalter said the company isn’t currently pursuing approvals there.

Alan Girard, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Eastern Shore director, said that while he was pleased AquaCon has withdrawn its application for a discharge permit, “it shouldn’t have gotten this far.”

Girard said details of the project changed during the review process, with the company reducing the size of the proposed building from 25 to about 18 acres and varying its plans for groundwater withdrawal.

“We need to look at alternative sources for fish production that don’t involve the wild fishery,” he said. But he said MDE needs to do a more thorough job of investigating the potential impacts of a facility that size before proposing to issue it a permit.

“All of the issues that came up during the public comment period were coming from scientists and advocates,” he said, who were “raising issues we thought the department should have identified and properly addressed before the permit came out on the streets.”

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson noted that state regulators had extended the public comment period on the permit for 60 days after the August hearing.

“While the proposed facility’s location has represented a unique challenge,” he said, “aquaculture is a safe way to raise sustainable food. The department is committed to continued innovation and economic growth in this field while ensuring all necessary safeguards are in place to protect the environment and public health.”

This article originally appeared on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.

Timothy Wheeler, Bay Journal Media

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

Jeremy Cox

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Maryland.

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