Marshyhope Creek is a 37 mile long tributary of the Nanticoke River which runs through Federalsburg, Maryland. Photo by Joel McCord.

Marshyhope Creek, a quiet, tidal estuary on the Eastern Shore, is the only place in Maryland where sturgeon, an endangered fish species that has been around since prehistoric times, are known to spawn. And environmentalists fear that plans for a giant, $300 million indoor salmon farm that would discharge millions of gallons of water a day into the creek could mean the end of the sturgeon.

The fear stems from discharges of the cold, potentially salty water – salmon are a cold water species – into the warm, freshwater creek that would upset the delicate balance necessary for the local fish to spawn. And they question whether the state Department of the Environment, which has issued a draft permit for the water discharge, can successfully regulate such an operation.

The size of the building – 25 acres under one roof – is intimidating enough. That’s more than six Super Walmarts in an industrial park on the outskirts of Federalsburg in rural Caroline County. When it’s fully operational, the Norwegian business AquaCon plans to harvest 35 million pounds of salmon a year using recirculated water, and discharge more than two million gallons a day of wastewater into the Marshyhope.

Lee Currey, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s water and science division, told residents during a recent public hearing on the project his office had “never dealt with something like this, and at this scale.”

That caught the attention of Al Girard, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Eastern Shore director. Girard called the project “uncharted territory,” not just because of the discharge of water, but also because of the stormwater running off that giant roof.

“There are a lot of questions,” Girard said. “The MDE really needs to deny this permit and take several steps back so it can ensure that water quality is not harmed in Maryland.”

David Secor, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science lab at Solomons, worries that a production facility of that size has never been tested anywhere.

“There’s no track record in terms of the management strategies and contingency plans,” Secor fretted.

The MDE’s Currey said that while the department hasn’t dealt with anything of this size, there’s a lot of information available on recirculating aquaculture systems and that his agency is “familiar with water quality standards.”

Department officials are confident, “that the limits we propose and the special conditions we have in the permit provide all the safeguards necessary,” he said.

Read more (and listen) at WYPR.