Aquarium Drops Canyon Effort In Response To Local Concerns; Officials Pleased With Outcome

Aquarium Drops Canyon Effort In Response To Local Concerns; Officials Pleased With Outcome
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OCEAN CITY — The National Aquarium this week officially withdrew its application to designate the Baltimore Canyon as a national marine sanctuary, ending months of trepidation about future access to the heart of the resort’s multi-million dollar fishing industry.

In October, National Aquarium officials announced they were seeking an Urban National Sanctuary designation for the Baltimore Canyon, a vast 28-mile long and five-mile wide submarine canyon off the coast of Ocean City that lies at the center of the resort’s recreational and commercial fishing industries. According to the National Aquarium’s application to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Marin Sanctuaries, the potential designation was billed as presenting “a unique opportunity to connect an urban population to the ecological treasure using cutting edge deep sea exploration technology.”

The National Aquarium’s announcement in October was quickly opposed by the resort area’s multi-million dollar fishing industry, whose representatives feared a sanctuary designation would ultimately limit, restrict or even prohibit recreational and commercial fishing in the canyon. It is estimated that offshore fishing contributes in excess of $100 million annually to the local economy in the White Marlin Capital of the World.

Various stakeholders including local and state elected officials and representatives of the fishing industry and the various marinas quickly mobilized to oppose the National Aquarium’s application. Despite the opposition, the National Aquarium did submit the application as planned, but on Wednesday it was announced the application had been withdrawn. National Aquarium Chief Executive Officer John Racanelli officially withdrew the application through a letter to NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Director John Armor.

“After careful consideration, we have decided to withdraw our nomination for the Baltimore Canyon, our nation’s first urban national marine sanctuary,” the letter reads. “Although we believe a national marine sanctuary designation would provide an unprecedented opportunity to protect a national treasure and inspire young minds, we have determined that the timing is not right for this nomination.”

The letter withdrawing the application to designate the Baltimore Canyon as a national marine sanctuary reiterated the goals of the National Aquarium’s greater mission.

“We know that the American public is increasingly concerned about the many risks facing our national waters and we plan to use these next two years to gather further community input regarding the importance and value of providing permanent protection to treasures like the Baltimore Canyon,” the letter reads. “I look forward to the opportunity to work together again and I applaud the selfless work of the National Marine Sanctuary System in protecting our nation’s marine and freshwater resources while keeping them accessible to all.”

The National Aquarium’s announcement it was seeking the designation led to the fishing community reaching out to State Senator Jim Mathias (D-38). Mathias quickly arranged a meeting with local stakeholders including White Marlin Open founder and director Jim Motsko and Captain Monty Hawkins on the Morning Star.

After that cursory first meeting, Mathias brokered another meeting at the Ocean City Marlin Club in November that pulled together all of the stakeholders including marina owners and boat captains along with local and state elected officials including Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C), who also worked tirelessly to help stop the national marine sanctuary application for the Baltimore Canyon.

“The very first call came to me and as soon as I heard the word ‘sanctuary,’ I said, ‘whoa, stop,’” said Mathias this week. “Before this went any further, we needed to gather our opposition and come up with a joint strategy on how best to stop this. We went ahead and gathered our alliance and everybody was solidly opposed to it.”

During that meeting in November, it was decided local attorney and fishing enthusiast Mark Cropper would take the lead in representing the private-sector stakeholders including many of the larger marinas, the Ocean City Marlin Club and the boat captains and fishermen. In December, Cropper presented the information to the Ocean City Mayor and Council, which quickly fired off a strongly-worded letter stating unconditional opposition to the designation to their various representatives in Annapolis, including Governor Larry Hogan.

“The Town of Ocean City earned the title ‘White Marlin Capital of the World’ in 1939 and has retained that distinction due to the impressive offshore experiences since the Inlet was created in 1933,” the Mayor and Council’s letter reads. “The only way to guarantee that regulations will not be adopted that could limit, restrict or prohibit fishing within the Baltimore Canyon is to either prevent the petition from being filed or ensure that it is ultimately denied by the Secretary of Commerce. Considering the very possible adverse impact to Ocean City’s economy, please utilize all available resources to prevent this designation from occurring.”

The Worcester County Commissioners soon followed suit with a letter of their own, as did a coalition of U.S. Congressmen from mid-Atlantic states including Congressman Andy Harris, who represents Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The collective voices of opposition from every corner, including the local fishing industry and local, state and federal officials was clearly heard. In December, Racanelli issued a statement saying the National Aquarium would consider withdrawing the application if it was determined a “national marine sanctuary is not the best way forward.”

True to his word, Racanelli officially withdrew the application this week through his letter to Armor. The announcement was met with great relief from all who participated in the opposition to the designation, including Cropper.

“This decision was the direct resort of the many individuals, businesses and elected officials that devoted time, energy and resources toward achieving this outcome,” he said in a prepared statement.

Cropper praised the National Aquarium for being responsive to the concerns of the local fishing industry, the business community and the elected officials at every level.

“The Aquarium not only respected the fears and other concerns that were expressed, but it responded in a manner truly reflective of its desire to ensure that all pursuits of its mission statement regarding conservation, research, education and otherwise are supported by the local communities that may be impacted by such endeavors,” he said. “It is, and always has been, an asset to the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. Taking this voluntary action, for which it had no legal obligation, ensures that it will continue to enjoy the support of the local community as has historically been provided.”

Cropper also thanked the various allies in the fishing community for their dedication to getting the marine sanctuary designation halted.

“I would like to especially thank the owners of Sunset Marina, Ocean City Fishing Center, Bahia Marina and the Ocean City Marlin Club, as well as all of our local elected officials, for their participation, cooperation and support throughout this matter of great concern to us all,” he said.

For his part, Mathias said the withdrawal protects not only the resort area’s economic engine, but also its legacy as a fishing hub along the east coast. He said Wednesday’s announcement was a clear victory for all of the stakeholders involved and praised National Aquarium officials for being responsive.

“I think we’ve claimed a tremendous, rational victory,” he said. “They said if the opposition was presented, they would pull the application. This probably got ahead of itself before it had its due diligence. It’s proof that the process works. By getting our opposition organized, we were able to get this stopped.”

Carozza said she also appreciated the National Aquarium’s decision to pull the application and praised all involved for making the community’s opposition known. Carozza also urged National Aquarium officials to reach out to the local community in any future efforts.

“After a strong community effort, the National Aquarium has withdrawn its nomination for the Baltimore Canyon to be designated a marine sanctuary,” she said. “Many thanks to all who took the time to share their concerns and opposition to this designation. We appreciate that any future conservation efforts by the National Aquarium will ensure early local involvement and partnership of our shared goal to protect our waters and way of life.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.