Most Marylanders probably aren’t aware of the Chesapeake Bay’s Atlantic sturgeon. They are a subset of an ancient species with roots hundreds of millions of year ago in the Early Jurassic period. With smooth skin and bony plates, sturgeon look a bit like sharks and live in the ocean, growing up to 16 feet long, but spawn in fresh water each spring. They have long been prized by fishermen for their eggs (beluga caviar comes from a variety of sturgeon found in Europe) and smoked sturgeon is a delicacy also prized by gourmets. In the late 19th century, Chesapeake Bay watermen harvested hundreds of thousands of pounds of sturgeon annually, but overfishing, pollution and dams that cut off their spawning runs left the population in a dire state. For the past decade, the Atlantic sturgeon has been officially declared an endangered species, and it is illegal to catch or possess one in Maryland. State biologists have for decades now been rearing dozens of Atlantic sturgeon in captivity in hopes of producing offspring that can help restore the Chesapeake’s dwindling wild stock.
Yet a new threat to their recovery has recently emerged. A Norwegian company, AquaCon, has plans to build a $300 million indoor aquaculture facility to raise salmon in the small Eastern Shore town of Federalsburg in southern Caroline County. The goal is to produce 15,000 tons of salmon each year, the equivalent of nearly 5 pounds for every man, woman or child living in Maryland. The community of roughly 2,600 people could surely use the investment given that more than one-quarter of its residents live in poverty. But here’s the catch: The facility would recirculate water from nearby Marshyhope Creek meaning that it would discharge back into the creek wastewater that, in both temperature and chemistry, might be significantly different from what was taken out. And what species might be harmed by this? None other than the Atlantic sturgeon that still spawn in this tributary of the Nanticoke River.
Company officials insist they will be good stewards and not adversely impact the Marshyhope but the risk seems too great. Opponents including Nick Carter, a retired Maryland Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, have pleaded with the Maryland Department of the Environment to withdraw a recently-approved tentative discharge permit. They believe MDE’s analysis has not been sufficient and fails to consider the sensitive nature of the spawning waters. The critics note, for example, that similar facilities in Maine discharge into much larger bodies of water that can handle the intrusion much better. Marshyhope is relatively tiny compared and the scale of the facility is massive — expected to cover 25 acres of land in total or more than 1 million square feet or the equivalent of 23 football fields placed side by side.
While the average Marylander probably enjoys a salmon filet as much as the next person, and providing jobs to a part of the Eastern Shore that is far from the more prosperous waterfront communities like Oxford or St. Michaels is appealing as well, this is absolutely the wrong place to make this investment. So we join with the biologists and others who fear that state officials have not fully considered the adverse damage this facility might do to a unique but vulnerable tributary. Those who bear responsibility for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay ought to pledge something similar to the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. Theoretically, it’s better to build a fish farm than something that might pollute worse but that’s still not good enough. Just because sturgeon aren’t harvested today (and thus don’t have vocal advocates like watermen or recreational fishermen pleading the case for them) doesn’t mean they deserve to be made extinct.
Fortunately, there is time to correct course. The public has a chance to comment on the facility’s wastewater permit through Oct. 17, and we would urge others who have concerns about the environmental impact to submit written objections. Observers say it’s unlikely that the discharge permit would be withdrawn altogether. We say never underestimate the power of average Marylanders who are standing up for the nation’s largest estuary and state’s most precious natural resources. At the very least, Maryland ought to set standards on the permit that absolutely protect the endangered species. The Chesapeake Bay’s Atlantic sturgeon should not be denied future generations.
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