The National Aquarium has launched an effort to protect a natural asset 70 miles off the coast of Maryland.
Aquarium officials disclosed this week that they intend to nominate the Baltimore Canyon to be recognized as the country’s first Urban National Marine Sanctuary and have started a petition drive to gain support for that effort.
The Baltimore Canyon is a 28-mile-long, five-mile-wide underwater ecosystem created by an ancient river millions of years ago. It contains fragile deep-sea corals that are rarely seen anywhere in the world and, if damaged, might never regrow. More than 125 species have been discovered there, including tunas, sharks, billfish, marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds.
Aquarium officials say the canyon offers unprecedented ecological and educational value, and its proximity to Baltimore presents an opportunity to connect an urban population to an ecological treasure using cutting edge deep-sea exploration technology.
“The Baltimore Canyon is not only a fascinating ecosystem, but also a natural classroom and living laboratory that we can use to expose our children to a new world, our next frontier,” said Kris Hoellen, the National Aquarium’s chief conservation officer. “We hope that with a groundswell of support from our community, we can designate this untapped aquatic treasure as our nation’s first Urban National Marine Sanctuary. It is time to invest in our deep seas and in Baltimore.”
As part of their mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures, aquarium officials want to protect the canyon from man-made threats by having it recognized as a marine sanctuary. They say they hope to create virtual, high-tech systems to connect discoveries from researchers in the canyon back to scientists, students and institutions on land, sparking tech investments in Baltimore and providing urban students with career paths in the sciences.
Aquarium officials note that the marine sanctuary designation would not affect fishing and “appropriate” recreational boating, although it would prohibit drilling for oil and natural gas.
“Protection of the Baltimore Canyon and surrounding waters does not call for the exclusion of the Canyon from fishing or recreational use,” their petition states in part. “In fact, the existing network of national marine sanctuaries supports $4 billion in marine-related economies annually and they are exceptional sites for both commercial and recreational fishing.”
The United States already has designated 13 national marine sanctuaries, but the Baltimore Canyon would be the first Urban National Marine Sanctuary, acknowledging its proximity to an urban center. The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center is seeking to have an underwater area known as the Norfolk Canyon designated a national marine sanctuary.
The National Aquarium is in the initial stages of the designation process with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. The process starts with completing a nomination package, backed by widespread public support. It also involves an environmental impact assessment and public hearings, and can take several years before a decision is made.
The aquarium is encouraging its members and others to join the effort by signing its petition, which can be found online here or signed in person at the National Aquarium. As of today, the petition already had more than 580 signatures.
Ed Gunts, a columnist for the Baltimore Fishbowl, has been writing about the National Aquarium since it opened.