John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium, Talks About Fish, the Environment and a Healthy Chesapeake

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John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium since 2011, wants you to know that “three of your next five breaths come to you courtesy of phytoplankton, the tiny marine plants that produce most of the planet’s oxygen.”

With me, he talked about the interconnectedness of every thing on the blue planet, moving from the West Coast to Baltimore, the importance of education that happens outside of school,  his favorite sea creatures including oysters and the mantis shrimp (which is having a pop-culture moment) and the powerful influence of wonder.

The three truths he’s learned remind us that there is profoundly bigger picture: “Hope is the world’s most powerful motivator.  Everyone is downstream of someone else.  We humans are not Earth’s only experiment. ”

What is the goal of the Aquarium?

Our mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures.  These treasures can be places, animals, plants, ecosystems, habitats, and communities—both human and non.  Ultimately, our vision is to fundamentally change the way humanity views our life-giving, interconnected, world ocean.

What would you like visitors to come away knowing?

That the ocean and all its tributaries—from the magnificent Chesapeake Bay to a backyard pond or stream—are both relevant to their lives and essential to their ability to live healthy, thriving lives.  Further, that the opposite is also true: an unhealthy planet marked by scarcity and diminished diversity is not one that will support humans.  We have a historic opportunity to make this connection and do something about it, but the clock is ticking.

What do you think is the impact of informal education on children’s interest in STEM careers?

For better or worse, it’s a fact that Americans now acquire 90 percent of their science knowledge outside a formal education setting.  While this includes everything from creationist websites to TV to science-based museums, we view this as an excellent opportunity for places like the National Aquarium to inspire young people about the wonder of the natural sciences, and from there, all the sciences, technology, engineering, math, and other disciplines.

The spark has to come from that initial sense of wonderment, whether it’s seeing a day-old sloth clinging to its mom or coming eye-to-eye with a 10-foot-long sand tiger shark.  That’s how we try to (pardon the pun) “hook” kids.  As for enthusiasm, they do the rest.

What do you think are the most prominent environmental issues facing this area of the country?

Just as it is everywhere on this blue planet, the singular issue that can do us the most harm, environmentally speaking, is global climate change.  This issue has the potential to make this a planet that’s inhospitable to humans.  And it’s an issue we have incredible capacity to address and mitigate.  Better insulated homes and buildings, higher mileage cars, less use of fertilizers and biocides, fewer burgers and more veggies…all of these represent minor life adjustments that will bring major relief to this stressed climate system.

As for why it matters: here in the Mid-Atlantic, we face a double threat from ocean level rise, which is a well-documented trend.  Because of the ancient Chesapeake impact crater, our land mass is subsiding at a rate of 2-7 inches per century; combined with an ocean that could rise 1-3 feet by 2100, we have to take steps now to prevent half of Maryland from ending up awash in a rising, warming Chesapeake.

Now, since you asked, several others include, in no particular order: hyper-nitrification of the Bay, pollution of all kinds (especially plastic and heavy metals), shoreline ‘armoring,’ airborne methylmercury, and siltification in the Upper Bay, primarily from the Susquehanna River.  After a litany like this, you’d think all hope was lost—and I’m one who believes that is patently untrue.  We are surrounded by success stories and everyday heroes whose stories are worth telling.

What is the Aquarium’s role in the cleanup of the Chesapeake?

Our first role is to show what a healthy, abundant, diverse Chesapeake Bay can and should look like.  Then, we have to drive conservation action—to be a resource for people to learn how they can be a part of the solution.  As Will Baker of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says, the Bay will never actually be saved—we will always be saving the bay.  As long as we show measurable progress, I’m OK with that.

What’s your favorite Chesapeake creature? 

My trick answer: Homo sapiens, because that species, alone among all others in Earth’s history, has the capacity to destroy itself or to make its blue planet a paradise.  

In the non-human category, it’s the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica).  This is due in part to the fact that I love to shuck and eat this delicious source of protein.  But beyond that, this little critter is perhaps one of the Bay’s best allies: each oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, one female can produce 100 million eggs each year, and an oyster reef provides a home for numerous other animals like blue crab, rockfish, and shrimp.  Oh, and they’re the only bivalve I’m aware of that has had a “war” fought over it.

The mantis shrimp appears to be having a moment. Can you tell us about the Aquarium’s own?

Our recent infographic on peacock mantis shrimp was a hit; last time I checked, it had been forwarded and liked by 17,000 on Facebook.  Why?  The Mighty Mantis is unique in many ways: an arthropod only a few inches long, it can trace its lineage back 500 million years and strikes its prey at a speed 50 times that of the blink of a human eye, with the speed of a .22 caliber bullet.  And there are 400 species of mantis shrimps.  You can find ours in our “Surviving Through Adaptation” gallery on the Aquarium’s third level.

What inspires you about Baltimore? 

Everything!  My wife and I love the food, cultural offerings, corner bars, parks, waterfront promenade, sports teams (no latent 49er love in this house), public markets, history, and diversity of this town.  We think the Mayor is moving Baltimore in the right direction with her emphasis on safe streets, good schools, and 10,000 new families.  One of our favorite things is to host our West Coast foodie friends for a weekend in Charm City, then listen to them rave about it all the way back to the beautiful, but expensive San Francisco Bay Area.  In 27 years of marriage and four cross-country moves, Susan and I believe we’ve finally found our town.  Thanks for that, Baltimore.

What are a few of your favorite Chesapeake places? 

In our two-and-a-half years here, we’ve built up a few favorites, most in Maryland: St. Michael’s, Assateague Island, the Patuxent River, Ocean City’s beaches, all of Rehoboth, Fort McHenry and several other historic sites like North Point, Maryland’s growing wine country, Druid Hill Park, Mike’s Crab House in Annapolis, and the entire town of Frederick.  In the next year, we hope to make it to Garrett, Allegheny, St. Mary’s and Somerset counties, the rest of the Eastern Shore, and to get more familiar with Maryland’s DC region.  Then, perhaps, we’ll give Pennsylvania a look…

Have you been to Calvert Cliffs to try your hand at collecting prehistoric shark teeth?

That’s one experience we have yet to attempt.  This spring, perhaps?

You’re from California. Do you eat crabs with a mallet and a bib?

Is there another way?  (P.S., We’ve eaten Dungeness, King, Tanner, Stone, Velvet, Red and Rock crabs and “true blue” Maryland Blue Crabs are the hands-down winner).

What the most surprising experience you’ve had in your tenure at the Aquarium?

Two are worth mentioning.  The first was a few years before my tenure here…in fact, quite a few.  In 1984, as the newly minted marketing chief for the soon-to-open Monterey Bay Aquarium, I came to Baltimore to visit the Mecca of aquariums.  On that summer day, I was paired up with two VIPs who happened to be in town that day as well: Liberace and his ‘driver,’ both in splendiferous attire.  In my blue blazer and khakis, I was by far the least noticed in that tour group.

The second occurred just last summer, when I got to take my first dive in our new Blacktip Reef exhibit.  As soon as I entered the water and saw the incredible quality of the reef our team had fabricated, I was transported back 30 years to my one and only dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and I knew we had a winner.

What are your three favorite marine-related words?

Life support system.   In the words of my friend and mentor Dr. Sylvia Earle, the ocean comprises Earth’s “blue lungs,” and without healthy lungs, none who rely on oxygen can survive.

What motivates you to continue to champion the life aquatic?

The ocean and all aquatic systems are essential to sustaining life on Earth.  Three of your next five breaths come to you courtesy of phytoplankton, the tiny marine plants that produce most of the planet’s oxygen.  Much of the carbon we generate is taken in and stored by seawater.  And, when it’s not overheating, the ocean moderates our climate and makes the atmosphere livable.  We must encourage more young people to pursue careers in marine science, even as we work to educate the public about the ocean’s importance, so that collectively we can find the necessary solutions to keep our life support system abundant, diverse, and healthy.  We have work to do!

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  1. Great piece. And couldn’t agree more about the Mantis Shrimp, which is featured in the Inverse Delirium podcast’s epic sketch of the same name, in webisode 78!

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