ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Less than 60 miles off the coast of Maryland, the ocean is peppered with bubblegum corals and mahi mahi in the Baltimore Canyon — one of 70 similar formations in the Atlantic created by ancient rivers.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore is working to preserve this unique marine environment that reaches more than 11,600 feet deep — about 8.5 times the height of New York’s One World Trade Center — and is pushing to designate the area as the nation’s first urban national marine sanctuary.
The title would provide government protections from oil and gas exploration and military activities that could damage the canyon’s marine ecosystem.
There are 13 designated marine national sanctuaries, but Baltimore Canyon would be known as an urban national marine sanctuary because of its connection and proximity to Baltimore City.
“This was an opportunity to say, you know what, we’ve got the Baltimore Canyon and we’ve got Baltimore, Maryland — an urban area — and why don’t we think about connecting our urban area to the deep seas?” said Kris Hoellen, the chief conservation officer at the National Aquarium.
A relationship between the canyon and the city could provide educational opportunities and research, of which there is very little, said Sandra Brooke, the director of coral conservation at the Marine Conservation Institute and a researcher at Florida State University.
Brooke participated in the Atlantic Canyons Undersea Mapping Expeditions project in 2012, where she and other researchers explored both the Baltimore and Norfolk canyons — the latter is off the coast of Virginia.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing in the area has ranked these two canyons as the most important habitats for coral in the region.
“We had sort of glimpses of the fact that there may be some deep coral ecosystems down there, but we didn’t really know very much about it,” she said. “Most of the information that we have about the Baltimore Canyon came from this most recent effort, so we still haven’t been able to thoroughly explore it.”
Through the mapping project, the research team found colonies of lophelia pertusa, a reef-building species that was previously only known to exist in Canada and around the Gulf of Mexico, in addition to a methane cold seep — a rare biological phenomenon that cultivates an abundance of marine organisms.
The cold seep remains the largest known seep in the western North Atlantic area, according to the National Aquarium.
However, human activity — such as fishing — compromises the unique marine environment of the canyon. When Brooke visited the canyon in 2012, she noticed fishing lines and trash had accumulated at the heads of the canyons, underwater.
“We’re in danger of losing things before we even know they’re there by exploiting underexplored habitats, and so annexing representative ecosystems such as those found in the canyons and putting them aside and protecting them from human exploitation kind of creates a buffer for us,” she said.
Maryland’s “burgeoning tech hub” could help provide solutions to protect the canyon’s aquatic landscape from pollution and overharvesting if the Baltimore Canyon becomes an urban national marine sanctuary, said Hoellen.
“(Baltimore City and Baltimore Canyon are) both areas that have been underinvested in and we have an opportunity here, a unique opportunity, to designate our first urban national marine sanctuary where we can connect urban youth and citizenry to the deep seas via technology,” she said.
Project leaders envision more opportunities for students to get involved with research and technology to encourage ocean literacy, hoping that the “urban” designation would help bridge the connection between the public and marine analysis. The National Aquarium has already started discussing possible collaborations with technology partners, Hoellen said.
“We’re fortunate that we have so many researchers and technology companies and educators in Maryland — and it’s only attracting more — that we can harness those partners and also national attention as well to create our first national marine sanctuary,” she said.
The National Aquarium had been looking at this designation for years as a way preserve the ecosystem of Baltimore Canyon while creating STEM career pathways, but the nomination process through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just reopened in 2015 after two decades, according to NOAA.
The process starts with public support, which the National Aquarium decided to express with an online petition that was started when it announced the effort Oct. 24. The petition has garnered more than 1,700 signatures thus far.
The nomination will then be sent to NOAA for review by the end of the year, and if passed, will be placed on the inventory for potential marine sanctuary sites. If the Baltimore Canyon were to be selected from the inventory, it would then go through a separate sanctuary designation process, which could take several years to complete, according to NOAA.
The public reaction to the project has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Hoellen said.
“We’re getting very positive favorable feedback from constituencies in the marine world, in the ecological world, the education community, in the youth development community and in the science fields,” she said. “I mean this is something that brings everyone together, which was our purpose.”
However, there has been concern from the sportfishing community that the designation will impact recreational fishing.
While the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council regulates fishing within 200 miles of the east coast, some fishermen have expressed concern that government regulations stemming from this designation could limit activity.
“What the sanctuary does, it puts those activities under a single umbrella and allows the sanctuary to regulate everything that goes on in there, up to a point of course,” said Brooke.
Dan Stauffer, the captain of Finchaser Sportfishing Charters in Ocean City, Maryland, takes about 20 to 25 trips to the Baltimore Canyon during an average season to look for tuna, marlin, mahi mahi and wahoo, among other fish.
“I’ve heard (the designation) will only affect commercial fishery, but there are aspects of commercial fishery… that greatly affect the charter fishing industry and recreational fishing industry,” he said.
Red crab and lobster fishing, for example, require the use of large buoys to attract the crustaceans, but the buoys could be banned under the urban national marine sanctuary designation, which would be “a big detriment” to fishing, said Stauffer.
“I am very concerned how restrictive they might be or whether this could morph into something that begins at one level of restriction but yet morphs into something that would be totally restrictive,” he said.
At other national marine sanctuaries, recreational activities have been permitted and even encouraged, but because Baltimore Canyon would be the first urban national marine sanctuary, different regulations might apply.
But the “urban” classification is imperative to the canyon’s identity, because it would provide an automatic connection to the people of Baltimore, and hopefully spur public involvement in ocean research, Hoellen said.
“We are looking at our urban areas and looking at social justice issues, and I think that’s where conservation becomes relevant and meaningful and it brings everyone together, and that’s when you know you have a success,” she said.