The National Aquarium in Baltimore had a clever idea last year. A popular fishing area in the Atlantic that shares the city’s name, Baltimore Canyon, could be designated the first U.S. urban marine sanctuary, giving the aquarium “a unique opportunity to connect an urban population to the ecological treasure.”
When the aquarium withdrew its sanctuary proposal this month, some environmental activists thought it might have done so in reaction to the new federal administration of President Donald Trump. Sanctuary status would rule out energy exploration, and the president has called for fewer restrictions on oil and gas drilling.
One reason to doubt this interpretation of events is that there isn’t a meaningful threat of oil and gas drilling in Baltimore Canyon, with widespread opposition to drilling off the East Coast and no foreseeable profitability to such drilling in a world already awash in oil and natural gas.
What actually derailed the sanctuary plan was a traditional, bottom-up opposition campaign, which convinced the aquarium management that many people in at least three states have an interest in Baltimore Canyon and must be part of the marine sanctuary process.
The campaign to stop the designation wasn’t particularly evident in South Jersey. The region’s deep-sea fishers know the 5-by-28-mile canyon as a top spot for billfish, tuna and tilefish. The competitors in Cape May’s prominent fishing tournaments make the 145-mile roundtrip to it to catch winners.
South Jersey anglers and marinas opposed the sanctuary designation, and 2nd District Rep. Frank LoBiondo was among House members who wrote to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urging its rejection. But area stakeholders knew forceful opposition was being gathered by peers in a place much more dependent on the canyon — the other Ocean City, in Maryland.
There, from the moment the aquarium floated the idea in October, that city’s $100 million-a-year fishing industry got to work organizing. Aquarium officials heard from opponents and early on indicated to them that if there was significant opposition, they would pull the sanctuary application.
In Maryland, the anti-sanctuary campaign was big, combining the voices of fishers, businesses and municipal, state and federal elected officials. The “White Marlin Capital of the World” was not about to take a chance on sanctuary status interfering with its identity and economy.
So the aquarium, as it had promised, withdrew the application. It said it would take a couple of years “to gather further community input” on the matter.
Most other marine sanctuaries allow largely unrestricted fishing, so taking the time to develop a well-crafted designation is the right approach. We think this will eventually produce a Baltimore Canyon Marine Sanctuary with widespread public support.