Following criticism from the community and environmental groups, the Norwegian aquaculture company behind a massive proposed salmon farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has withdrawn its application for a key discharge permit.
Environmentalists worried the indoor fish farm, which was to be located along the Marshyhope Creek in Federalsburg, would ruin a crucial breeding ground for Atlantic sturgeon — believed to be the only such area in Maryland — by inundating the shallow waterway with surges of cold water.
In a statement released Friday, AquaCon acknowledged that public comments about its application “drew attention to Atlantic sturgeon’s use of Marshyhope Creek,” adding that the issue “warrants further consideration and evaluation.”
The Maryland Department of the Environment had been weighing whether to approve AquaCon’s permit application, and was planning to accept public comments on the issue through Monday before issuing a decision.
“AquaCon sincerely appreciates MDE’s evaluation of our project to date, 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 Norwegian company’s CEO, Pål Haldorsen, said in a statement.
In a statement Friday, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said the agency “respects” AquaCon’s decision to withdraw its application.
“The department has always been clear that public participation is a crucial component of our permit application review process, and in this instance we held a hearing and also extended the comment period 60 days to allow for additional written comments,” read the statement.
Though the proposed location of the facility “represented a unique challenge,” according to the department’s statement, the state remains committed to boosting the aquaculture industry.
The large, $300 million facility planned for Federalsburg was expected to raise 15,000 tons of salmon a year using recirculated water. The facility was planning to discharge 2 million gallons of wastewater into the small creek per day, which environmental groups and scientists worried would fundamentally alter the ecosystem for the sturgeon, an endangered species once thought to have disappeared from the Chesapeake Bay region.
Overfishing years ago decimated the species as demand rose for sturgeon eggs, also known as caviar.
In its statement Friday, AquaCon said the withdrawal of the permit for Federalsburg “provides opportunities for continued collaboration with State, county and local governments as AquaCon continues its efforts to develop land-based ... facilities for the production of Atlantic salmon in the Mid-Atlantic region, with a focus on the State of Maryland.”
The company previously expressed a desire to eventually site three more facilities in Maryland, in Caroline and Dorchester counties.
In a letter dated Oct. 3, the Federalsburg mayor and its town council asked MDE to deny or delay the permit.
“While the Mayor and Town Council are open to the AquaCon proposed project, they are concerned about the lack of information and studies to support the infrastructure necessary for such a large project,” the letter reads.
The officials called the permit application “premature,” arguing that certain studies should be completed first, including a hydrological study on the impact of the large discharges from the facility, and evaluations for a pipe that would need to be constructed beneath the Federalsburg Bypass for the facility.
Groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation raised questions about the salmon farm’s use of large quantities of groundwater and how it would handle fish feces and other byproducts, in addition to questions about the impact on the creek’s small population of sturgeon.
In a statement Friday, the environmental nonprofit cheered the company’s decision to withdraw its permit rather than pursue construction, but argued that the state should have prevented the “half-baked” proposal from reaching the public comment stage.
“We’re pleased AquaCon withdrew its discharge permit application,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Eastern Shore Director Alan Girard said in a statement. “However, it shouldn’t have gotten this far. We urge MDE to more closely vet such significant—and in this case, deficient—proposals before bringing up a permit for public review.”