Archive for the 'Conservation' Category



On Thin Ice: An In-Depth Look at Endangered Species

With overflowing landfills, the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture and a reliance on unsustainable energy sources, among other factors, the human population’s carbon footprint is ever-expanding. From melting polar ice caps to ocean acidification, the environmental impact is becoming increasingly evident.

The implications of a species disappearing reach far beyond the loss of a single organism. Extinction occurs when the last individual of a species dies, and the disappearance of just one plant or animal can have a cascading effect on an ecosystem.

Leveraging Legislation

On December 28, 1973, Congress passed a monumental piece of legislation—the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the ESA was enacted to protect and restore populations threatened with extinction and their critical habitats.

More than 1,500 species are currently recognized as threatened or endangered by the ESA. The ESA prevents the “take” of those listed species from their habitat and limits trade and poaching of endangered species.

The ESA is a federal law, but it has the benefit of trickling down to state level. States, in many cases, create additional legislation to further the protection of species deemed to be endangered or threatened within their state boundaries.

Simple Changes

Too often the focus of the conversation of endangered species is the harm humans have on the environment. More important, however, is that simple behavioral changes can go a long way toward caring for and reviving the natural world.

Take palm oil.

This vegetable oil, a substitute for the partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats, can be found in everything from cereals and canned soups to baby formula and cosmetics. Through everyday purchases, many of us may be perpetuating the destruction of a habitat that boasts some of the greatest species diversity on Earth.

Palm oil plantations are popping up across Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries at the expense of tropical forests. The many species that depend on these forests, including endangered orangutans, face extreme peril.

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Something as simple as checking the ingredients before purchase could help save a species thousands of miles away.

A Global Connection

A healthy habitat is one of the most important factors when it comes to protecting endangered species. Under the ESA, regions can be designated as “critical habitat,” or areas essential to the survival of a species, but here is where it gets tricky.

Labeling an area critical habitat does not necessarily prevent the further development of that land. Essentially, the designation serves as a reminder to federal agencies to take extra precautions, even to modify projects, in order to minimize harm to these vital natural spaces.

From the water we drink to the air we breathe, humans rely on healthy ecosystems, and every species contained in an ecosystem plays an integral role in the success of that network.

A Proactive Approach

Not every species will be as lucky as the gray wolf, but it is not all doom and gloom. The diamondback terrapin, for example, though never listed as an endangered species in Maryland, has a history of exploitation.

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In the 19th century, terrapins were considered a delicacy and hunted for their use in stews. The demand for the terrapin, combined with other factors, caused their numbers to drop dangerously low.

Recognizing the risk, Maryland passed a law in 2007 ending the commercial harvest of terrapins in state waters. And while it is too soon to quantify the impact, alleviating pressure on a struggling population is a step in the right direction.

Bald eagles, American alligators, the Virginia northern flying squirrel, grizzly bears—there have been numerous success stories. In the best circumstances, a species will be “de-listed” from the ESA, meaning the population recovers to a point where it no longer requires protection under the law.

Do Your Part

Here are a few ways to show you care about the world’s endangered species, no matter where you live:

  1. Be a conscious consumer – Purchase products that are organic, locally grown or sustainably sourced.
  2. Back legislation that impacts the environment – Every comment counts, so if there is an issue you support, call or write a letter to your representative. Learn more about the National Aquarium’s legislative priorities at aqua.org/legislation.
  3. Contribute to a conservation organization – Provide financial support if you can. If you don’t have money to give, donate your time! Visit aqua.org/care to learn about opportunities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
  4. Start in your own backyard – Planting native plants in your garden will attract native wildlife, including invaluable pollinators that help to preserve the natural environment.
  5. Reduce, reuse, recycle –  Join our 48 Days of Blue movement and learn how simple actions can make a big difference in protecting our natural world!

An Update from the CEO: Our Future

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As part of our supportive online community, I want you to be among the first to hear about an ambitious and far-reaching project now underway here called BLUEprint, which we have undertaken to design a robust future for the National Aquarium.

As you know, we are at our core a conservation organization that operates one of the nation’s leading aquariums in pursuit of our mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. This mission drives the work of our Board, staff, and volunteers, yet we know we must evolve to remain relevant. Through BLUEprint, we are probing the foundation of what it means to be a world-class aquarium, both now and in the decades to come.

We have partnered in this effort with exceptionally talented professionals, led by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang and her world-renowned design and architecture studio, Studio Gang Architects. In addition to creating transformative architecture, Studio Gang employs the tools, methods, and visionary capability of design to catalyze positive change through public engagement and advocacy. We believe their emphasis on work informed by cultural and environmental trends syncs precisely with our design and planning needs.

Here’s a brief overview of the four pillars we are currently exploring in this groundbreaking effort:

I. The future of aquariums worldwide

In the 33 years since the era of modern aquariums began here in Baltimore, we have made quantum leaps in terms of the care we offer our animals, the science that informs our work, and the evolving role of aquariums in the nation and world. We have touched the lives of 50 million guests, many of them students who have grown up with this valuable community resource.

We have also experienced a significant evolution in the audience we serve: it has become younger, more concerned about the health of our planet, and less willing to simply accept the same way of doing things. Our audience of the next 33 years recognizes the urgent need to protect the health of oceans and aquatic habitats worldwide, and we believe we have an obligation to help them learn how they can be a part of the solution.

This has, in part, driven our transformation from an aquarium attraction with a nascent conservation program to a nationally recognized conservation organization that operates a world-class aquarium to carry out its mission. A key part of the BLUEprint inquiry is to identify the core elements of this desired future state and map out the steps it will take to attain it.

II. Reimagining the National Aquarium experience

When it opened, the National Aquarium set a new standard for aquariums, telling a compelling story through its exhibits, creating drama, and evoking powerful messages about the world of water. As it has evolved, the facility has become more diffuse, with three very different exhibit experiences: Australia: Wild Extremes in the Glass Pavilion, the dolphin amphitheater on Pier 4, and the original exhibits on Pier 3. Separated by water and differing exhibit approaches, these experiences have been challenging to unify. This is the central work of the BLUEprint: to weave these exciting but disparate parts together to tell a powerful story of aquatic conservation.

Some of the ideas now in the concept stage include:

  • A “perched wetland” in the slip between our piers to depict the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s quintessential habitats while demonstrating what a healthy, thriving urban waterfront might be
  • A new gallery of exhibits focused on the nation’s 13 marine sanctuaries, which range from Massachusetts to American Samoa in the mid-Pacific
  • A more cohesive visitor pathway
  • Public access to back-of-house zones traditionally off-exhibit, such as our animal care center, marine animal rescue facilities, veterinary lab, and food preparation space
  • A fresh approach that could make the bridge between our piers an exhibit experience unto itself.

Among others, these concepts are now being tested in the marketplace by our predictive analytics firm IMPACTS for efficacy and feasibility. Our objective is to reimagine the National Aquarium experience and implement those changes over the next 10 years.

III.  Designing a new role in the nation’s capital

As you may know, we operated the original National Aquarium in the Department of Commerce Building in Washington, DC, from 2003 until last fall, when it was closed to make way for the U.S. General Services Administration’s $1 billion renovation of its 1930s-era building. At that time, we pledged to find a way to continue the National Aquarium’s presence in the capital, and since then, two compelling ideas have emerged.

The “ocean embassy” idea envisions a program spearheaded by the National Aquarium to bring together ocean advocates, aquarium leaders, and policymakers to perform for the ocean what embassies do for nations: debate issues, promote mutual welfare, negotiate disputes, and represent the interests of their constituents. As a matter of fact, the open ocean comprises 43 percent of the planet, yet it is ungoverned. We believe that such critical ecosystems need an embassy, and our partners at Studio Gang are investigating possible approaches for the idea.

We are also exploring potential collaborations with our colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution; discussions continue and we are optimistic about future partnerships.

IV. The future of dolphins at the National Aquarium

As we develop, evaluate, and refine our plans, our highest priority is to ensure the health and well-being of the animals in our care.

To that end, with a heightened understanding of the emerging science and an intimate knowledge of the eight dolphins in our care, we are studying and evaluating all possible options for providing them with the best possible living environment in the years ahead.

In fact, we began this evolution two years ago with the introduction of Dolphin Discovery, a new interpretive approach to exhibiting our dolphin colony. There are no longer scheduled shows, and guests can come and go from the amphitheater as they please. Now, guests are invited to engage in one-on-one conversations with the biologists who care for the animals, and interaction sessions focus on natural behaviors as an analog for the dolphins’ lives in the wild. These efforts have already garnered us recognition as an innovative leader among aquariums worldwide.

Our next step is to evaluate the most beneficial options for our aging animals, like 42-year-old Nani, who has been with us since the opening of our current dolphin pavilion. There are many issues to consider when planning for the future of these social, cognitively advanced mammals.

Later this month, we will host a summit to convene animal care experts, veterinarians, and biologists to determine the feasibility of a variety of potential solutions, including designing and building a dolphin sanctuary in an ocean-side setting and exploring in detail the requirements for operating such a facility. We will pursue our exploration and address this need with our highest priority in clear view: to ensure the continued health and well-being of our dolphin colony.

Though we have achieved much over our first decades, we are not resting on our laurels. To the contrary, we are embracing these changes enthusiastically as we design a future that will ensure we remain relevant to audiences of tomorrow.

We are pleased to report that even at this early phase of our work, we have caught the attention of The New Yorker magazine, whose May 19 “Innovators Issue” features a story on Jeanne Gang and highlights our BLUEprint project.

Since its beginnings, the National Aquarium has been a proud partner in Baltimore’s renaissance and the Inner Harbor’s rebirth. The reputation we have worked hard to build over these years has earned us the distinction of being one of Maryland’s leading attractions, with a well-documented, positive economic impact on the city and the state.

We take this role seriously. We know it is only possible thanks to the dedication and generosity of our family of supporters, and we thank you for your commitment to our work. We plan to continue to share this journey with you and invite your feedback as our plans evolve.

To sign up for email updates on BLUEprint and to offer feedback and questions, please visit aqua.org/future.

Together, we will attain our vision to change the way humanity views and cares for the ocean. After all, it’s what gives us life.

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Conservation Re-cap: NWF Annual Meeting

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Conservation partners from the 49 state affiliates of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) met in Baltimore last week to hear and learn from each other’s efforts to protect and improve our blue planet.  This year’s conference theme was WATER: It Connects Us All.

As the host affiliate for the state of Maryland, the National Aquarium not only helped steer some of the conversation, we also had a chance to display some of our aquatic conservation initiatives to a national audience.

Highlights of the conference included:

  • Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, addressed the audience during the Opening Session and spoke about government transparency and the critical importance of public participation in the federal regulation and rule-making processes
  • Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, spoke about the explicit need for individuals and communities to create a groundswell of positive change to both hold the public sector accountable and support and reinforce good work
  • Conservation organizations from across the country shared innovative ideas on improving both water quality and water quantity in local and regional jurisdictions, and managing invasive species in our ecosystems
  • Conservation policy resolutions were passed that would help provide the future framework for NWF work.  These included initiatives focused on alternative energy, deforestation, invasive species, fisheries management and climate change
  • George Hawkins, General Manager of DC Water spoke about “making our cities work” and improving urban infrastructure to help relieve development pressure put on rural landscapes

As the local sponsor, National Aquarium had a chance to highlight healthy aquatic communities around the world by inviting meeting participants into our Baltimore venue for an evening.  We were also able to show our partners our successful education and stewardship work at both Fort McHenry and Masonville Cove through off-site field trips.

Aquarium staff also shared our expertise in climate change communication and social media strategies to build the capacity of other organizations in those areas!

At the end of the meeting, participants had an opportunity to hear from Collin O’Mara, NWF’s newly appointed President and CEO.  He left us with the following charge: “Confronting the pressing conservation challenges of this generation will require that Americans from every corner of our nation and every walk of life work together community by community and state by state to drive change at the national and international level.”  We couldn’t agree more.

Laura Bankey

Q&A with Humpback Whale Rescuer Ed Lyman

In advance of his special lecture at the Aquarium on May 7th, we chatted with Ed Lyman about his work as a humpback whale disentanglement expert and the important role marine-protected areas play in the preservation of this species.

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How did you get your start with the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network? 

I was asked by David Mattila, who was the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuaryʻs research and rescue coordinator and one of the pioneers in large whale disentanglement, to assist in setting up a large whale disentanglement response program in Hawaii.  David and I had worked together doing similar work at a non-profit research organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts called Center for Coastal Studies.

Because of our experience, and the resources and experience of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, we took on the role of managing the Network, which works under and very closely with NOAA Fisheriesʻ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.  I continue to coordinate the Network in Hawaii under the National Marine Sanctuary Program, while David went on to focus on the broader, global issue of entanglement threat.

Walk us through the process of large whale entanglement response.

In the broadest sense it starts with awareness and outreach, since even a whale ends up being a very large needle in and even larger haystack – the world’s oceans.  If we are to mount any kind of response, we need to find the animals first. Second, trying to free a 40-ton, 45-foot, likely free-swimming animal in the open ocean is not easy and can be quite dangerous for animal and humans alike.  We essentially perform a risk assessment, and get authorization to proceed from NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, who are responsible for overseeing such efforts in the US.

As far as actually freeing the animal, they don’t necessarily know we are there to help. We need to control them a bit and gain access to the entanglement by gaining access to the animal. To do this we borrowed and adapted a technique that whalers from the 1800s used, who also wanted to gain access to the animals.  The technique involved throwing harpoons, not necessarily to kill the animal, but to attach to it. The whaler would then attach barrels or kegs to the other end of the line, which added drag and buoyancy, serving the purpose of slowing the whale down and keeping it at the surface.

noaa whale rescue

Image courtesy of NOAAʻs Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and taken under NOAA Fisheriesʻ MMHSRP (permit #s 932-1489 or 932-1905).

Instead of harpoons we throw grapples or use hooks on the end of long poles to attach to the trailing gear and thereby gain access to the animal.  Instead of barrels, we keg the entangled whale with large plastic buoys. We add more gear in order to get the gear off. Once the whale has slowed, we use the same lines we have attached to pull up to the animal while onboard a small inflatable boat, and with hooked knives on the end of long poles, cut the animal free of all the gear.

Lastly, and most importantly, we collect the gear, so we can investigate what it was, where it came from, how the animal may have gotten entangled, and any other information we can glean as to reduce the threat for other animals in the future.

Tell us about one experience that was especially challenging in recent years? How did you and your team overcome it? 

Two years ago we got a report of a humpback whale calf entangled in gear. It had a tight wrap of line around its body forward of its flippers with nothing trailing. We had nothing to get a hold of to gain access to the animal. The entanglement was life threatening since the calf was essentially growing around the wrap of gear (they can drink 100 lbs of milk per day and grow rapidly). Our hooked knives, which were sharp only on the inside, were not going to gain access to the embedded line.  In addition, a protective mother and male escort (which by the way, was not the father) accompanied the calf, making it difficult to approach.

We made several attempts to free the calf, but in the end we were not successful.  I know we have to set emotions aside when doing this type of work, and while a humpback calf is 15 feet long and weigh up to a ton, it still is a “baby” whale.  We can only hope that the animal was able to free itself.

This year we had another humpback calf, again with mother and escort, reported entangled exactly the same way – a tight wrap, forward and well embedded in the calf’s body, with nothing trailing.  However, having learned from our past experiences, we were better prepared by having designed and fabricated a multi-edged knife, and by using the behaviors of mother and calf to our advantage.  Mother humpback whales like to rest (it takes a great deal of energy giving birth and nursing a 1 ton baby, even for a humpback whale mother) and they sometimes do so at depth.

The calves, however, cannot hold their breath as long and come up to breathe typically every 3 to 5 minutes, circling above mom before heading back down. While onboard the sanctuary’s response vessel, we positioned ourselves to be able to reach out with the new knife on the end of a 25-foot carbon-fiber pole and cut the wrap when the calf surfaced.  On the third try we were successful and the calf was free of all gear. Over the ensuing month, the calf was re-sighted by various tour boats in good health.

If the attendees of next week’s lecture could take away one thing about humpback whales and marine sanctuaries, what would you want it to be? 

Humpback whales are charismatic mega-fauna that are icons of our oceans and symbols of its health.  Our national marine sanctuaries are marine protected areas that are special places. They both are icons and symbols of our oceans’ health, and sanctuaries are a means to help maintain the health of our marine ecosystems.  We need to protect and support them both, and thereby continue to appreciate the greater marine ecosystem they represent.

How can the general public support the important work the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network is doing?

Obviously if you are in Hawaii and see an entangled whale we ask people to call a regional 24/7 Hotline, which is (888) 256-9840, to report an entanglement.  If at a safe and legal distance, take pictures and/or video to help us access the entanglement and its impact.  If a response is to be mounted, we do ask people to stay with the animal and monitor it until an authorized and trained response team arrives.  We emphasize for folks to not take matters in their own hands, especially by getting into the water.  It’s not just a matter of being illegal, but more importantly, it’s too dangerous, and typically doesn’t result in getting all the lethal gear off the animal.

The general public can all also contribute towards keeping our oceans clean.  Whales can get entangled in just about anything in the water column.  It is not always fishing gear.  We need to watch what we put in our oceans or what could find its way into our oceans.

Lastly, the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network does appreciate financial support.  While operated by and under state and federal agencies, government funding is decreasing each year.  We find ourselves reaching out to the general public more and more to make ends meet.  You can directly support our work through the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

To learn more about this fascinating issue, be sure to join us for Ed’s special lecture on May 7th! 

Thoughtful Thursday: Ditching Plastic Bottles

It is the 10th day of our 48 Days of Blue initiative!

We are overwhelmed and excited to share that, in a few short days, we’ve reached almost 900,000 people online together! In the days and weeks leading up to World Oceans Day (June 8), we’ll be drilling down on each of our 48 Days of Blue pledges and sharing the conservation potential that exists with each.

This week’s focus is on reusable vs. plastic bottle use!

Did you know? A mass of plastic trash circulating in the North Pacific, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, spans an area twice the size of the United States.

Americans buy approximately 29 billion plastic water bottles every year.

By pledging to swap single-use with a reusable bottles, you can save an average of 168 plastic bottles (and up to $250) a year!

reusable water bottle conservation

Want to help make our blue planet a better place? Head over to 48daysofblue.com and join others in pledging to use a reusable water bottle!

A Blue View: Getting to Know Bob Talbot

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

April 30, 2014: Getting to Know Bob Talbot

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John and Bob Talbot discuss
Talbot’s incredible film/photography work!

 

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably seen Bob Talbot’s work. The photographer, filmmaker and environmental advocate has filmed wildlife sequences for everything from “Free Willy” to “Flipper,” and his stunning photographs of whales and dolphins have been reproduced into millions of lithographs and distributed worldwide. (In fact, they’re still considered the most popular series of marine mammal posters on the planet.)

His compelling storytelling technique, combined with the stunning way he captures underwater life through a lens, gives Talbot the opportunity to do what our ocean-dwelling friends cannot: provide a voice that moves people to action. Presented with the Environmental Hero Award, the Ark Trust Genesis Award and the prestigious SeaKeeper Award, he’s dedicated his life to promoting awareness of ocean issues and encouraging conservation of Earth’s resources.

We had the honor of hosting Talbot this past Earth Day (April 22) at the Aquarium, as part of our Marjorie Lynn Bank lecture series, where he shared his experiences photographing and filming some of the world’s most incredible marine animals. Miss Talbot’s lecture? Don’t panic…we recorded it for you!

Don’t forget to mark your calendars for our upcoming lecture with humpback whale rescuer Ed Lyman on May 7th! 

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Conservation Re-cap: 15 Years at Fort McHenry

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As the birthplace of our National Anthem, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is an important site for our nation’s history. Since 1999, Aquarium staff and Aquarium Conservation Team volunteers (ACT!) have joined community volunteers to clean up and enhance the natural areas around the Fort that provide habitat, food and shelter for an amazing variety of wildlife that rely the area.

Ft. McHenry

As of January 2014, almost 630,000 pieces of debris have been removed from the wetland during our conservation field days. Just this weekend, 150 volunteers filled two dumpsters full of debris!

In addition to cleaning up marine debris, volunteers remove harmful invasive plants, maintain hiking trails, maintain pollinator and rain gardens and plant native flowers/trees. These efforts have proven to be vital, not only for the care and maintenance of Fort McHenry and the many species that call it home, but for the Aquarium’s environmental education work as well.

ACT!’s work helps preserve the home of hundreds of animal species, including birds, butterflies, reptiles, insects and aquatic creatures, while educating students and the public about marsh ecology and urban wildlife. Wildlife at Fort McHenry include blue crabs, marsh crabs, comb jellies, grass shrimp, Atlantic silversides, snapping turtles, ospreys, loons, mockingbirds, monarch butterflies, red foxes, bats, river otters, leopard frogs, and many, many more!

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A fox recently spotted at Fort McHenry by Flickr user drbeanes!

For the past 15 years, ACT! has recorded and classified the amount and types of debris collected during our events. This data is used by the Aquarium and others to look at long-term trends in debris effects on ecosystem health and to provide information that can help us prioritize our waste reductions efforts throughout the city, state and country.

Have you ever visited this historic landmark? Tell us about your experience in the comments section!

Laura Bankey


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