The Norwegian company AquaCon has an enticing economic proposal—invest $300 million in three massive, land-based salmon farms on the Eastern Shore and employ 500 people. The company hopes to produce as much as 45,000 tons of salmon per year.

Proponents argue the project could boost the long-term economic prospects on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

While that’s important, details about how the company plans to protect the Shore’s sensitive environment and the Chesapeake Bay haven’t been as readily available. That’s concerning. We hope the company will address several important questions surrounding this project at the virtual public hearing for its wastewater permit on March 18. Ed. note – the virtual meeting was rescheduled after this op-ed was published to 5 p.m. on May 26.

At the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), we believe aquaculture has an important role to play in meeting global food needs. In the U.S., 90% of the seafood consumed is imported, most of it produced by aquaculture overseas. Increasing domestic aquaculture production can help balance this $16.8 billion seafood trade deficit, create jobs, and relieve fishing pressure on wild populations. But it cannot be done at the expense of the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Most of the current aquaculture operators in the Chesapeake Bay area deal in oysters or clams, a process in which operators buy and raise shellfish in the Bay for sale. These efforts put more water-filtering bivalves in the water, an environmental benefit resulting in cleaner water.

However, the environmental side of finfish aquaculture, including salmon production, is more complicated. Salmon aquaculture is an industry plagued by environmental issues. Even land-based systems, like the one proposed by AquaCon, use large amounts of feed and energy to grow salmon and keep the tanks cool—the water needs to be around 45 degrees for the salmon to survive. The fish also produce significant waste, primarily from fish feces, which fouls the water and must be treated before flowing back into local rivers like the Choptank River and Marshyhope Creek.

AquaCon’s proposal calls for treating waste with an anaerobic digester, pumping wastewater to treatment plants, and using solar panels on the facilities’ roofs to generate energy to chill the water and operate equipment.

This may be better than salmon production facilities that do not use such methods, but we think the company needs to be more specific about how this will work before approvals are granted. Will the withdrawals of water used in production impact species like rockfish and the endangered Atlantic sturgeon that use these areas to spawn? What about the capacity of the treatment plants and local receiving waters to handle the contaminants generated by these facilities?

Salmon require the water to be salty. How will our public wastewater treatment systems handle the salt in the wastewater that’s piped to them? It’s unclear these facilities can meet salinity discharge limits as currently designed.

It’s also unclear if AquaCon can deliver this ambitious proposal. The company hasn’t built any other salmon farms, but is proposing to start with massive facilities in Maryland.

We have other concerns:

  • AquaCon has not detailed contingency plans for what they’d do in the event of a major salmon die-off or significant storm, such as if a hurricane hit.
  • What food sources would the company use to feed the salmon? Wild-caught forage fish such as menhaden, sardines, and anchovies are typically used as fish food in these types of operations. CBF is concerned about industrial-scale menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay because the small fish are important for the broader food web. Using forage fish from other ecosystems may damage the food web in those areas as well.
  • The proposed facilities would be among the largest structures on the Eastern Shore, with each building covering about 25 acres---the size of about six Walmarts. These facilities will produce huge amounts of stormwater runoff from their roofs and paved parking areas. The company has proposed tree buffers around the structures, which may help but are too small to do the entire job. We encourage state and local officials to scrutinize the company’s stormwater management plans to prevent flooding and water quality issues due to these buildings’ massive footprints.
  • Sensitive wildlife must be protected. One facility is proposed near Marshyhope Creek in Federalsburg. The creek is among the Bay’s few remaining habitats for endangered Atlantic sturgeon. Any environmental disturbances to this creek due to runoff, wastewater, or other pollution from this operation could harm juvenile sturgeon and larvae.

We understand AquaCon’s proposed project has economic potential for the Eastern Shore and the ability to help meet global seafood demand. Those benefits, however, must be weighed against the environmental risks that such a large-scale, land-based aquaculture operation inherently poses. Complete transparency is required before – not after – local and state officials approve these facilities to proceed.

Alan Girard is the Eastern Shore Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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