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Government Affairs Update: My One Year Aqua-versary

by Sarah Elfreth, Government Affairs Director

Published June 09, 2013

This week marked the one year anniversary of my joining the National Aquarium as Government Affairs Manager. It has been an incredibly rewarding rookie year full of challenges, growth, and no shortage of animal encounters. I am undoubtedly most thankful for (apart from being able to hold not one but two baby sea turtles) the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to meet, work with, and learn from here at the Aquarium, in the environmental community, and in the halls of Annapolis.

Now that I’ve officially gotten my feet wet, been in over my head, dived right in, and whatever other cliché, Aquarium-related pun I’ve heard upon telling people where I work, I thought it would be best to reflect on the past year and exactly what I’ve learned. This year has taught me:

  1. Collaboration is key. Whether it is internal or external, government affairs simply would not be successful without a little help from friends. From our amazing Guest Services and Biological Programs staff who facilitate unforgettable tours for public officials to every member of the Marketing team who helps communicate the Aquarium’s advocacy work, I would be lost without the entirety of the National Aquarium team. Our work with other environmental groups in the region, such as Blue Water Baltimore, Trash Free Maryland, and the Choose Clean Water Coalition, just to name a few, ensures that we stay up to date with the latest conservation issues and guarantees that we all have a stronger advocacy voice.
  2. Know your strengths. Maryland, Baltimore, and the entire Chesapeake region are brimming with phenomenal environmental groups that are doing great things to protect our natural resources – but the National Aquarium is one of a kind. We have the opportunity to physically reach 1.4 million visitors annually with our mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. Because we are a truly national attraction, the National Aquarium has a $314 million annual economic impact and $18 million fiscal impact on the State of Maryland and Baltimore City that helps boost the local economy. Communicating these unique strengths – and using them for the public good – is at the heart of everything we do. Oh, and did I mention we have dolphins? Chesapeake "photobombing" a nice family moment for Maryland Delegate Eric Luedtke.

    Chesapeake "photobombing" a nice family moment for Maryland Delegate Eric Luedtke.

  3. You are never finished telling your story. I probably say the words “did you know that more than 75,000 Maryland schoolchildren, teachers, and chaperones visit the Aquarium for free every year?” when discussing the Aquarium’s education priorities. In reality, the life of a government affairs professional is not wholly unlike the film “Thank You for Smoking.” I talk. A lot. Only instead of tobacco, I talk about economic impact, tourism, and sharks.
  4. “Think globally, act locally.” As the National Aquarium, we have an obligation to communicate the importance of the world’s aquatic treasures. But sometimes, especially when working on issues in Baltimore City and Maryland politics, communicating the importance of local treasures such as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Chesapeake Bay, and Maryland’s coastline is the start of a larger conversation. For example, what we do to help save the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States and the economic lifeblood of the region, can serve as a case study for similar efforts in Puget Sound, the Great Lakes, or the Mississippi Delta. Similarly, the National Aquarium’s efforts to help pass the shark fin ban bill in Maryland will not only help the sharks off our own coast but will (and has already) inspire others to pass similar legislation.
  5. Stay true to your mission. Above all else, I have learned that the National Aquarium is a private, nonprofit conservation organization with a strong commitment to our community. While giving a tour this morning, one of our talented team members greeted the guests by saying, “Welcome to your Aquarium.” His statement made me pause and consider the brief but powerful message. The original Blue Wonders building was constructed using taxpayer funding and the State of Maryland and Baltimore City occasionally supplement a portion of our capital costs. 1.4 million guests and 75,000 Maryland school children, teachers, and chaperones walk through our doors every year (see, I told you I say it a lot). Our conservation work around the state ensures that we practice what we preach on a daily basis. Our advocacy work in the halls of Baltimore’s City Hall, the Maryland State House, and Capitol Hill gives a voice to critical conservation efforts. And our access programs, from Fridays After Five to Maryland Mornings, help ensure that it remains your Aquarium.
It has been a wonderful year – and I’ve only just gotten my feet wet.

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