Posts Tagged 'laura bankey'

Thoughtful Thursdays: The Role Sharks Play in Maintaining Healthy Ocean Ecosystems


Sharks, like almost no other animal on this planet, capture our thoughts and imagination – deservedly so. These animals have been around for hundreds of millions of years and have evolved into almost every shape and size. They can be the size of a bus or the size of your smart phone. They can bear live young or lay eggs in open water. They can feed on the smallest plankton or on whale carcasses. They can spend most of their lives on a relatively small section of the sea floor or migrate more than a thousand miles.

Despite their incredible diversity, most species of sharks have several things in common. They generally take a long time to reach reproductive age and have few offspring and although some species can tolerate fresh water, most live in salt water their entire lives. Most are also apex predators and their numbers are declining in ecologically significant ways. A coral reef ecosystem and the incredibly diverse plant and animal community it supports, is directly impacted by the health and abundance of sharks as apex predators – and vice versa.

blacktip reef sharks

Our new exhibit, Blacktip Reef, represents an entire coral reef ecosystem!

When we talk about the real and urgent threats sharks are facing – overfishing, shark finning, bycatch and habitat destruction, we are inclined to focus on the issues that are less diffuse, and quite frankly, issues where the blame lies with others. All we have to do is fix the bad habits of others and we can save the world.

While bycatch, overfishing and finning are vitally important to address (70-100 million sharks are killed annually due to these problems alone), we can’t forget that we also need to protect the places – like coral reefs – they depend upon to survive. If we want to ensure the health of our marine species, we’ll need to reverse the widespread destruction of vital coral reef, mangrove, grass bed and wetland habitats. These are nursery or feeding grounds for sharks and other species. Protection of habitat is tightly linked to the well-being of the animals we care so much about.

We are losing these habitats at alarming rates and for a variety of reasons. Climate change and ocean acidification are threatening our coral reefs, coastal development and sea level rise are jeopardizing our important mangrove and wetland areas, and sedimentation and destructive fishing practices are killing our underwater grass beds. If we are going to protect sharks and other ocean species, we’ll need to also focus on these issues. But this time, when we look for the person to blame, we need to accept some personal responsibility. We, as individuals and as a society, are responsible for – and have the power to mitigate for climate change, to make sure development happens in responsible ways, to decrease our collective carbon footprints. We need to hold ourselves responsible for our own individual contributions to this problem and we need to hold each other accountable.

The good news is, as we make strides to restore and protect healthy habitats, the lasting effects cascade throughout the ecosystem – creating supportive environments for healthy plant and animal communities. The better news is we can do something today to make a difference! Volunteer with the National Aquarium or other local conservation organization to restore vital aquatic habitats, choose seafood that has been caught in ways that doesn’t harm sharks, or take a step to reduce your carbon footprint. Sharks deserve our help. Join us!


Thoughtful Thursdays: Plastic Free July


Plastic Free July, an initiative started in Australia in 2011, is making its global debut this year. It’s a campaign designed to make us think about how we use plastic in our daily lives in an effort to get us to eliminate single-use plastic from our routines. There is no doubt that plastics play a significant role in improving our quality of life (i.e., bicycle helmets, hearing aids, etc.), but our growing reliance on single-use plastics is not only creating environmental problems (six of the top 10 items found during the Ocean Conservancy’s 2012 Coastal Cleanup were single-use plastics), but it’s perpetuating this myth that there are unlimited natural resources on this planet, so therefore we can feel free to use and dispose of them as we wish.

We know this is not the case, but our routines continue to support the disposable lifestyle – and many of us find it difficult to break bad habits. The Plastic Free July intiative challenges people to make a commitment to eliminate single-use plastics from their lives for one day, one week, one month or longer. If it becomes too difficult to go cold turkey, they suggest that you tackle the top 4 (straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles and coffee cup lids).

Marine Debris - Plastic Bags

During last year’s International Coastal Cleanup, approximately 1,019,902 plastic bags were retrieved. If you ate jellies, could you tell the difference?

Any contribution to the effort, they say, is a step in the right direction. They are right. As the Director of Conservation at the National Aquarium, I’ve been involved in our cleanup efforts at Fort McHenry for more than a decade. More than 95 percent of the debris we remove from the wetland is plastic or foam and an overwhelming majority of that is single-use. This debris affects the health of our waterways, the health of our wildlife and the health of our communities – and it’s preventable. On one end of the process, we can get much better at waste disposal and recycling in our region. At the other end of the process, we can take steps to dramatically reduce the amount of single-use plastics that we use, keeping it out of the waste stream altogether.

There are several good resources out there if you would like tips on how to take the first step, like living plastic free, My Plastic Free Life and the Ocean Conservancy’s smartphone app called Rippl. A couple of years ago, I began my own journey to eliminate the top 4 from my daily routine, and while it has been mostly successful, it hasn’t always been perfect (hint: you can’t take a stainless steel water bottle into Camden Yards to watch an Orioles game). I have reusable shopping bags stashed in my car and my purse and carry an insulated mug with me just about everywhere I go, but more than half the time, I still forget to inform restaurant waiters that I don’t need a straw before one is automatically plopped down on the table. I know changing habits takes time, so I try to give myself a break. More importantly, I know that the real success is not so much when you reach your goal, but when you start making conscious decisions that rely less and less on convenience and more and more on responsible consumerism.

Have you gone plastic free? Are you participating in the Plastic Free July challenge? Share your experience with me in the comments section! 


Celebrate our National, Natural Treasures on July 4th!


The 4th of July is a day filled with friends, family, parades, fireworks, cookouts, and flags – all in celebration of American Independence! It’s an important day to celebrate our history, our culture and our freedoms.

This 4th of July, I’d like to highlight our natural wonders, cultural treasures and the determination of the men and women that made sure they were protected and available to everyone. During the time when westward expansion was at its height, there was also a growing recognition that the young United States held some amazing landscapes, worthy of preservation.

Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872 and “Americas Best Idea” was born. In 1903, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was created. It was an important step forward in also preserving vital habitat for wildlife.

One of every three acres of land in the United States—nearly 600 million acres—belongs to the public. These lands are the country’s special, one-of-a-kind natural resources. These are the national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, coastal preserves, forests, grasslands, marine sanctuaries, lakes and reservoirs that all of us use to hike, bike, climb, swim, explore, picnic or just simply relax.

Here in Maryland, there are 16 National Parks and 5 National Wildlife Refuges. Together, they boast more than 6 million visitors a year – deservedly so. Bald Eagles and Osprey take their turn nesting on these undeveloped sites. Snow geese, black ducks, tundra swan and other waterfowl by the tens of thousands visit our refuges each winter as they migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. Endangered species like the piping plover and loggerhead sea turtle use the Assateague coast for nesting.

Ft. McHenry

Part of the Fort McHenry National Monument and Shrine.

These parks, along with other protected areas like National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine Protected Areas, are often well managed and are less influenced by outside stressors, such as development, overfishing and habitat degradations, that strain the health of our natural ecosystems. Protected areas such as these are national treasures, and we must all do our part to ensure their long-term survival and sustainability.

The National Aquarium’s Conservation Team (ACT!) has partnered with the National Park Service, National Parks Conservation Association and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore vital habitats at places like Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, and Eastern Neck and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuges. Over the past 14 years, with the help of community volunteers, we have planted more than 1.5 million native plants and restored more than 170 acres of vital habitat on protected lands.

Now, more than ever, is the time to advocate for more areas, aquatic and terrestrial, under protection. The world does not need one more shopping mall. We DO need clean water, clean air, and places to fish, kayak, hike, bike and sail.

This 4th of July, I encourage you to get outside and celebrate our national, natural treasures! Go check out a National Park or Wildlife Refuge near you.


Thoughtful Thursdays: The Ongoing Restoration of Masonville Cove


On Saturday, June 22 Masonville Cove was flooded with volunteers, eager to lend a hand in the restoration of this Baltimore City wilderness area.

Masonville Cove

A total of 71 people shared their time and talents to help clean-up debris along the shoreline, plant 4,000 native wetland grasses, and install 10 bird boxes. For many volunteers this was the first visit to Masonville Cove, and they were excited to learn about the wonderful local outdoor opportunities that this site has to offer.

Rep. Sarbanes at Masonville Cove

There was at least one energized return visitor – Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District. Rep. Sarbanes was at Masonville Cove for its grand opening celebration in October of 2012, and he jumped at the chance to check-in and see how the center has evolved! Saturday’s event was also a great opportunity for Rep. Sarbanes to speak about the importance of the No Child Left Inside Act. This act aims to increase environmental education and environmental literacy standards nationwide.

“It would provide some federal funding through the Department of Education to support, at the grassroots level, getting our kids outdoors; connecting the educational instruction that they get to the environment, to the outdoors. It’s a wonderful opportunity to help support student achievement by using the environment and the way the environment brings kids’ interest alive – when they’re outdoors it makes a huge difference,” Sarbanes said.

Masonville Cove

The National Aquarium is part of the nationwide No Child Left Inside Coalition as an official supporter of the NCLI Act. “For over thirty years the National Aquarium has been inspiring thousands of children each year, helping them see their connection to the aquatic world and how they can help,” said Joe Harber, Director of Education Programs, “Environmental literacy is critical to a child’s education and preparing them for the 21st century.”

We agree with Sarbanes’ sentiment that “By connecting young people to the bay, you’re making them into stewards of the environment.” The National Aquarium is looking forward to opportunities to connect all generations of stewards to the bay through restoration events at Masonville Cove and throughout the watershed. We hope to see you out there!


Thoughtful Thursdays: Understanding Seafood Fraud


We all know that the seafood choices we make directly affect the health of our oceans. How the fish is fished or farmed, where it is fished or farmed, if it is overfished, if other species are accidentally caught along with the desired species: all of these issues make a difference in the overall health of our marine ecosystems. Fortunately, there are tools that are available to help us make the right choices both in grocery stores and in seafood restaurants.

What happens, though, when make the effort to make the right choices, but we are sold mislabeled fish and we end up eating something completely different from what we ordered? This is one of the major aspects of Seafood Fraud, and it happens more often than we think. To raise awareness of this important conservation issue, seafood fraud was the chosen theme of last night’s Fresh Thoughts dinner at National Aquarium, Washington, DC.

According to a study done by our partners over at Oceana, close to 33 percent of the seafood purchased in the US is mislabeled.

This is not necessarily the fault of the restaurant or grocery store. Mislabeling can happen anywhere in the supply chain. A vast majority of the seafood we consume in the US is imported. There are several steps involved in getting a fish caught or farmed in a foreign county onto your dinner plate. Many folks are involved (fishermen, farmers, distributors, importers, exporters, etc) and there are limited resources available to inspect seafood imports. Further more, generally consumers have a limited ability to truly recognize what fish we’re eating. The situation is ripe for us to be taken advantage of.

This hurts us as consumers and as concerned citizens of our blue planet. Often, we are sold cheaper fish in place of premium species that we desire. This trend also hurts honest fishermen, distributors and chefs that are doing their best to make responsible business decisions while providing for their families. Just as importantly, though, is the harm this is causing to our marine ecosystems. Knowing the growing trend for choosing sustainable seafood, sustainable choices are often swapped with seafood that is “red-listed” to take advantage of the willingness to pay a little bit more for seafood that supports healthy oceans.

“The best way to combat seafood fraud is to require traceability – or the ability to track our fish from boat to plate.” said Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana, during last night’s event. We as consumers need to be assured of the source of our seafood. In the US, fishermen already provide much of this information upon landing. Unfortunately, there is no accountability in making sure it then is kept intact throughout the rest of the supply chain. And for the vast majority of the seafood that we consume that in imported, there are almost no checks and balances in place to protect the consumer.

So, what can we do? Here are some simple ways you can help combat this issue:

  • We have to let our elected officials know that we are aware of this issue and are concerned about how it is affecting our families, our economy and our oceans. Tell your Senator you want to help them fight seafood fraud!
  • Take steps to understand and decrease the number of steps it takes for the seafood that you consume to get from the boat to your plate. In Maryland, for example there is a True Blue program that identifies restaurants that are selling locally sourced crab meat. Many Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) are also developing across the country. These programs make a direct link to consumers and local fishermen, allowing us to purchase healthy, local seafood while supporting our local economies.
  • Spread the word to friends and family. Awareness is the first, and arguably most critical, step to harnessing real change!


Thoughtful Thursdays: Looking Past World Oceans Day


If you ask anyone to use one word to describe the ocean, you’ll most likely hear one of the following; amazing, awesome, powerful, wonderful, hypnotic, miraculous, magical, vast, incredible, inspiring, etc. Of course, there are many, many more descriptive words for the sea, but these are the most popular – and the most emotional. They all communicate much more than a technical description. These are words that evoke deep sensitivities. Maybe it is because we know the ocean provides for us – or that we depend on it for so many things or maybe it is because we are instinctively aware of our deep connection to the ocean.

Few things are more peaceful than staring out at the ocean!

Few things are more peaceful than staring out at the ocean!

June 8th is World Oceans Day. At the National Aquarium, we will take this opportunity to talk to our guests and community about why we love the ocean and why it deserves our protection. We will also spend some time talking about the challenges that the ocean is facing, challenges like pollution, global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification and overfishing. This weekend, we’ll offer activities designed to provide ideas on ocean-friendly choices we all can make at home and we’ll invite our visitors to join us at one of our upcoming ocean conservation events. I hope you’ll be able to join us this weekend!

Plastic debris at Ft. McHenry National Monument and Shrine here in Baltimore. Plastic pollution is seriously hurting the ocean and its inhabitants!

Plastic debris at Ft. McHenry National Monument and Shrine here in Baltimore. Plastic pollution is seriously hurting the ocean and its inhabitants!

More importantly, once you go back to your normal lives next week, I’d like to ask that you continue your passion for our oceans. Take what you learned on World Oceans Day and incorporate them into your daily routines. I know this is easier said than done – so I’d like to offer some tips on how to make this easier:

  • Decide what you love most about the ocean. This could be its plants or animals, beaches, recreation opportunities or its resources!
  • Find ways you can help what you love. Research some of challenges our ocean is facing and identify those that particularly effect the thing you love the most. I.e. if you love sea turtles, you might want to work on plastics pollution, fisheries bycatch issues, nesting beach protection or endangered species conservation.
  • Decide on one thing you will change in your life that will make a positive change. Now you know you want to help reduce the amount of plastics in the ocean. You can decide if you want to help remove what is already there (participate in community cleanup events like the International Coastal Cleanup) or reduce what our society is adding to the problem by decreasing or eliminating some single-use plastics (like water bottles and disposable coffee cups) in your life.
  • Commit to making that change a permanent part of your daily routine by World Ocean’s Day 2014. Honestly, changing your daily routine is not easy. It will not happen overnight and will take significant and ongoing commitment – even for seemingly easy changes. So I’m also asking you to give yourself a break. Give yourself time to make this happen. Make a World Oceans Day Resolution! Commit to making a change this year, set a goal, mark your progress throughout the year and then, ideally, you will reach your goal by next World Oceans Day!
  • Celebrate your success and share your stories with us along the way! Give yourself a pat on the back. Committing to, working towards and ultimately hitting your goal was not easy and you deserve to feel proud. Maybe you volunteered for 3 cleanup events and helped remove 60 lbs. of trash that otherwise would have made its way into our ocean. Maybe you stopped buying bottled water and removed 365 bottles from the waste stream. Congratulations! You’re making a difference. Share your stories with us so that your successes can help inspire others to make a difference for our oceans. Warning: Helping our ocean can be addictive. I predict (and hope) that this one commitment will lead to others along the way.

The ocean is a treasure worthy of our respect and admiration. Thank you in advance for making a difference!


Baltimore is Focused on Clean Water


Water, and more specifically Clean Water is a major area of focus in Baltimore this week. Rightly so. We all understand that we rely on access to clean water for not only life itself, but our quality of life as well. The water that we drink and that makes up the natural systems that surround us is intricately linked to our health and well-being. It is this undeniable fact that is the focus of many events happening in our great city in these next few days.

The week started off with the unveiling of Baltimore’s Annual Healthy Harbor Report Card. The “report card” is an annual milestone report focused on the ultimate goal of making the harbor Fishable and Swimmable by 2020. The Baltimore Harbor was given a grade of C- in 2012, with most water quality indicators (dissolved oxygen, water clarity, nutrient levels, etc.) squarely in the C-D range. According to the monitoring data, the Baltimore Harbor only met water quality standards 40 percent of the time. Despite the less-than-stellar grades, we must realize that natural systems take time to “bounce back.” We cannot reverse centuries of abuse in the course of a couple of years. We are in this for the long-term after all and if we pay attention and continue to work together and take responsibility for our role in clean water, we will see our efforts pay off.

stephanie rawlings blake

Mayor of Baltimore Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at the Healthy Harbor report card press conference. Photo via Blue Water Baltimore.

Mid-week, the Choose Clean Water Coalition Annual Conference will also begin right here in Baltimore. The focus of the coalition is to serve as a strong, united, effective advocate for restoring the thousands of streams and rivers flowing to the Chesapeake Bay by coordinating policy, message action and accountability for clean water at the federal, state and local levels. The National Aquarium has been a member of the coalition almost since its inception and we are excited to help host this year! More than 275 representatives from organizations and governments from all over the Chesapeake Bay watershed will learn from some of the innovative initiatives developed in our city and elsewhere. It is an important chance to share common strategies and priorities so that we can build upon the work of each other to more effectively face our challenges and ultimately help improve our local streams, rivers and the Bay.

Finally, Baltimore City, like many other jurisdictions in Maryland is considering the establishment of a stormwater utility or Water Pollution Reduction Fee. The utility will be the major topic of discussion at the June 11th City Council meeting. The purpose of the utility will be to create a sustainable model that will allow our city to finance the repair and replacement of aging stormwater pipe systems currently in place and to implement innovative and effective stormwater reduction strategies that will clean our polluted stormwater runoff before it gets to the local streams. Now is not the time to debate the need for such a utility, legally the city is required to do this or face large fines; now is the time to let our city council know that we care about clean water and healthy communities.

Again, we all understand that we rely on access to clean water for not only life itself, but our quality of life as well. The water that we drink and that makes up the natural systems that surround us is intricately linked to our health and well-being.

The activity here in Baltimore this week reaffirms the critical concept that we have the power to CHOOSE clean water. We have the power to make individual choices that improve water quality (choices centered around your home, your work, your commute). We have the power to take collective actions to ensure healthy water supplies (volunteer in community cleanup and restoration efforts, use your purchasing power to stand up for clean water, etc.). We have the power to support our local governments in their efforts to provide communities access to clean water. – or we have the power to do nothing. Which are you going to choose?


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