The National Aquarium released 25 rehabilitated juvenile sea turtles in St. Augustine, Florida, on Feb. 22, 2023. Photo credit: Philip Smith, National Aquarium.

Harborplace may be in transition, but one of its neighbors is apparently good to go for the next five years.

The National Aquarium announced that it has earned a renewal of its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) at the organization’s Mid-Year Meeting in March.

The renewal, which lasts five years, means that the aquarium remains a member in good standing with the nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science and recreation.

The AZA is the accrediting body for the top zoos and aquariums in the United States and 12 other countries, and is considered a leader in saving species all over the world.  There are currently 238 AZA-accredited facilities and 15 AZA-certified related members, places that collectively draw more than 200 million visitors a year.

When a zoo or aquarium is accredited by the AZA, that means it meets “the highest standards in animal care and welfare” and offers a “fun, safe and educational family experience,” according to the Silver Spring-based organization.

One of Maryland’s top tourist attractions and a sculptural centerpiece of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium opened in 1981 at 501 East Pratt Street and was first accredited by the AZA in 1984.

Expanded over the years to include a separate Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 and an animal care and rescue facility at 901 E. Fayette St., it has been continuously accredited by the AZA ever since.

The aquarium made its debut one year and one month after the opening of the Rouse Company’s Harborplace pavilions at Pratt and Light Streets, on July 2, 1980. Together, Harborplace and the aquarium were meant to be provide a one-two punch that would help draw visitors and area residents to Baltimore’s waterfront.

Today, Harborplace is nearly vacant and targeted for revitalization by a new owner, MCB Real Estate, in a process that’s expected to take several years. The AZA accreditation is a sign that Baltimore’s aquarium hasn’t declined the way Harborplace has and continues to fulfill its conservation-oriented mission with no need for a major overhaul.

“Accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is of paramount importance to us and is critical to shaping and keeping with our philosophy as a leader in animal care and wellbeing,” said National Aquarium President and CEO John Racanelli , in a statement.

“As we approach the 40th anniversary of our initial accreditation, we believe that it is more important than ever that all institutions serious about animal welfare adhere to the highest standard of ever-evolving care for animals, our facilities and our guests.”

According to the aquarium, AZA accreditation includes a detailed application and a meticulous, on-site, multiple-day inspection by an independent team of zoological professionals. The inspecting team analyzes all aspects of the facility’s operation, including animal care and wellbeing; veterinary care; keeper training; safety for visitors, staff, and animals; educational programs; conservation efforts; financial stability; risk management; governance; and guest services.

The team’s review is designed to make sure each facility has and will continue to meet ever-rising standards. The AZA requires facilities to complete the accreditation process every five years as a condition of continued membership in the association. 

As part of the process, detailed reports from the inspection team and the facility alike are thoroughly evaluated by the AZA’s Accreditation Commission. The Commission interviews top officials from the facility at a formal hearing, after which accreditation is either fully granted, provisionally granted for one year, or denied.

“Our application for continued AZA accreditation takes into consideration every aspect of our operations and animal welfare practices and is a true team lift for our entire organization,” said Stephanie Allard, the National Aquarium’s Senior Vice President and Chief Animal Welfare Officer, in a statement.

Allard led the 2023 accreditation effort for the Baltimore facility. “Being accredited for another five years is a testament to the hard work and extreme care executed everyday by dedicated teams across the Aquarium,” she said. 

According to the AZA, fewer than 10% of the 2,800 animal exhibitors registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are AZA-accredited. The National Aquarium and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore are the only AZA-accredited facilities in Maryland. 

“To hold the public’s trust as being the ‘gold standard’ for zoological facilities, we are constantly evolving our standards to reflect the latest animal science,” said Dan Ashe, president and chief executive officer of AZA, in a statement.

“We owe it to the animals in our care to provide the best animal wellbeing possible, and our rigorous accreditation process reflects that expectation. Congratulations to these outstanding zoos and aquariums for earning AZA’s accreditation.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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