By Doug Graves
PIONEER, Ohio – An 83-acre cornfield outside the village of Pioneer, in the northwest corner of the state, is being transformed into a model for the aquaculture industry.
AquaBounty, a land-based salmon producer, broke ground last month for its 479,000-square-foot facility that will produce 10,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon every year.
AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf said the site was chosen over 250 other possible locations around the country. The cost of the project will be $290-$320 million; it will create 100 to 150 jobs. Commercial stocking of salmon eggs will begin in late 2023.
“AquaBounty is already raising nutritious salmon in our Prince Edward Island, Canada, and Albany, Ind., farms that is free of antibiotics and other contaminants,” Wulf said. “This location, which will be our largest commercial salmon farming operation, provides a solution resulting in a reduced carbon footprint and no risk of pollution to marine ecosystems as compared to traditional sea-cage farming. It will offer a consistent supply of salmon raised in the U.S. in a safe, secure and sustainable way.”
Not everyone is happy with its location, though. Despite overwhelming opposition based on public comments (roughly 1,100 complaints received by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources), the agency approved a water withdrawal and consumptive use permit for Massachusetts-based AquaBounty. The permit will allow operators to pull about 28 million gallons from the Michindoh Aquifer to fill tanks at the facility. The plant will eventually pump about four million gallons a day.
The opponents of the facility listed a variety of reasons, and their biggest concern was the water. Many wonder, what will happen to the Michindoh Aquifer and its water?
The Michindoh is believed to cover all or parts of nine counties in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, including all of Ohio’s Williams County. The sprawling underground water source covers about two million acres and currently provides clean, fresh water to more than a dozen municipalities and thousands of private residential wells.
Howard Reeves, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist, described the aquifer as a giant sponge with water moving through the sand, gravel and clay.
“In this area, there’s historically been a decent amount of water moving through the system,” Reeve said. “Most of the water is coming from rainfall that infiltrates through root zones and most of it discharges through streams, rivers and wetlands. That’s why rivers flow in summer when it hasn’t rained for a while, because groundwater is feeding those rivers.”
Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water, a Traverse City-based water policy center, said every water diversion in the Great Lakes region matters.
“These are the types of quantities that raise alarm bells for all jurisdictions in the Great Lake Basin,” Kirkwood said. “The Great Lakes Compact was really clear about directing states to monitor and evaluate these massive water withdrawals, because they have tremendous impact not only on individual aquifers but on the larger watersheds and ultimately the Great Lakes Basin itself.”
Kirkwood said issues of unintended consequences such as chemicals, oxygen levels, sedimentation, nutrients and water levels needed to be studied carefully before launching such huge projects as this one.
“We have inadequate modeling and monitoring of the aquifers,” Kirkwood said. “Groundwater is an invisible resource that must be prioritized in terms of water conservation and protection.”
According to the U.S. EPA, the Michindoh is a source of drinking water for about 385,000 people. Water in the aquifer runs both vertically and horizontally, and can be as shallow as near the surface to about 200 feet deep. It was created about 14,000 years ago by glacial deposits of sand and gravel.
AquaBounty officials said the modeling studies completed and included in a 600-plus page Ohio Department of Natural Resources application indicate the Michindoh can sustain the new salmon farm and will suffer no negative environmental impacts.
Wulf added that the benefits to the area are plentiful. For starters, the facility will incorporate a wastewater treatment plant where organic matter containing nitrogen and phosphorus is removed and made available to local farmers who use it as fertilizer and as a soil amendment. Second, after filling the tanks initially, water will recirculate about five days before being cleansed and discharged into the St. Joseph River.
“On a daily basis we’ll be using about four million gallons of water,” Wulf said. “That’s why we say we recirculate 99 percent of the water and it just keeps being used and cleaned.”
That water, she said, will flow through large industrial biofilters that clean it to required standards to provide the quality of water required for the salmon to grow and thrive.
Another benefit, officials there said, is their land-based salmon are free from pollutants and other contaminants that regularly affect wild salmon.
Genetically engineered salmon hasn’t been embraced by major retailers like Kroger, Costco, Walmart and Whole Foods. Still, AquaBounty officials believe that consumer sentiment and perception around GMO has been shifting to positive.
AquaBounty has some catching up to do, however. Net losses for the company were recorded at $22.3 million in 2021 and $16.4 million in 2020.
According to Wulf, the facility should be operational by late 2023, with salmon ready for market in 2025.