Finding Common Ground on the Ocean Floor

A note from John Racanelli, CEO

A couple of weeks ago, in an abundance of good faith, the National Aquarium submitted a proposal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to consider establishing a national marine sanctuary in the Baltimore Canyon, 70 miles off Ocean City’s shores.

A mile beneath the surface, the Canyon is home to ancient deep-sea corals and cold methane seeps which support a rich food web that’s irresistible to migrating sportfish and billfish. Aware that invasive practices like oil drilling or gas fracking could wipe out this ancient ecosystem, we joined others who wanted to provide better protection against such assaults by seeking designation for this area as a national marine sanctuary. With the best of intentions, we reached out to some members of Ocean City’s fishing and recreation community to discuss the idea and hear their views. Regrettably, I believe our efforts fell short, and numerous leaders have expressed deep concerns about the wisdom of such a designation.

As a former commercial fisherman myself, I take full responsibility for this, and want to stress three important points to those who have concerns: We hear you; we want only what’s best for Maryland; and we stand ready to work with you to figure out how to best meet the important goal of preserving fragile treasures like the Baltimore Canyon. Please allow me to briefly address each of these points.

We hear you. Your concerns are vital to any discussion about issues that affect the health of our offshore waters. In fact, they are central to this conversation. If Eastern Shore communities feel a national marine sanctuary is not the right idea, we have little interest in pursuing such a course. We will only seek solutions that have the full faith and backing of the entire community. For the record, sanctuary or no, we will gladly join our partners in the fishing and recreation industries to resist any attempts to establish prohibitive restrictions on their livelihoods.

We want only what’s best for Maryland’s people and natural places. That’s our mission: to inspire conservation of aquatic treasures. Our exhibits, educational programs and conservation efforts are all focused on creating connections between our guests and those treasures that have made the Chesapeake Bay region famous. Generations of Marylanders have relied upon our bay and ocean resources for recreation, sustenance and livelihood, and we’re committed to ensuring that this never changes.

Many leaders have told us that no other Maryland institution cares as much—or does as much—as the National Aquarium to ensure that the ecosystems that support our recreational and commercial fisheries remain robust, resilient and healthy. Since 1981, over 51 million aquarium guests have learned about these special places. We’ve hosted 3 million students, trained teachers and volunteers, supported watermen, cleaned up beaches, removed invasive species, planted native trees and grasses, and promoted local, sustainable seafood. We’ve rescued, treated and released over 150 stranded seals, turtles, dolphins and a manatee named Chessie, marshalling a network of volunteers and staff who respond 24/7/365 anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic. It’s what we do, and that, too, will never change.

We stand ready to work with you. Ultimately, we all want the same thing: clean, safe, fishable waters for ourselves, our children and grandchildren. As I’ve said, the National Aquarium would never support any new restrictions or limitations on current activities in the waters of the Canyon—including recreational and commercial fishing, boating, diving and other marine tourism activities.

I’ve been fortunate to travel our state and meet many who, like me, care deeply about the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. I look forward to meeting and engaging with anyone who has concerns about this well-intentioned proposal. If, in fact, we come to agreement that a national marine sanctuary is not the best way forward, I will ask that our application be withdrawn.

One thing I am confident about is that our shared vision of healthy, abundant waters for future generations far outweighs any debate about how best to achieve it. After all, as goes the health of the ocean, so goes our own. We’re in this together.

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