Even as the world continued to battle the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, there were still plenty of conservation wins to be celebrated—here in Baltimore and beyond.
Getting Our Hands Dirty
The National Aquarium team, dedicated volunteers and community partners are always ready to put in the work at cleanups and other field conservation events in the Baltimore region to benefit local waterways and ecosystems! This year's cleanup events resulted in more than 38,000 pieces of debris being removed from local waterways at Masonville Cove in South Baltimore, Cox's Point Park in Essex and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. Data from these cleanups continues to inform advocacy to reduce waste.
Farther afield, we participated in two annual planting events. In March, the Aquarium's Conservation team and volunteers traveled to Worcester County for our annual tree planting event at Nassawango Creek Preserve, a sprawling swamp and upland forest habitat that spans nearly 10,000 acres on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The bulk of our tree planting focuses on the Atlantic white cedar, and at this year's event, 95 saplings of this species were planted, bringing the grand total of Atlantic white cedars we've helped to plant at Nassawango to 41,473 since our work in the preserve began in 2009. In addition to helping combat climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, these trees restore essential habitat for local wildlife. Our annual tree planting is held in partnership with The Nature Conservancy.
Fast forward to July, and our Conservation team and volunteers headed to Virginia Beach. Since 2004, we've partnered with Naval Facilities Engineering Command Mid-Atlantic to ensure a four-mile stretch of ocean dunes along Naval Air Station Oceana-Dam Neck Annex remains resilient and intact. Our team reinforces and fortifies the dunes using fencing while planting beach grasses and shrubs, the roots of which anchor the dunes to prevent erosion, provide protection against powerful storm surges and improve climate resiliency. At this year's event, 79 volunteers helped to plant 28,550 grasses and 1,500 shrubs.
This year marked the fourth time the National Aquarium managed Baltimore's participation in City Nature Challenge, an annual international competition to see which city can find and identify the most species. With 13,421 total observations, 1,917 total species observed and 854 total observers, Baltimore had a strong showing in this year's event, which was held from April 30 to May 3. This is the highest number of observations and species identified in Baltimore since we began participating in the challenge! This year, the most commonly reported plant and animal species in the region were common blue violet and Northern cardinal, respectively.
Another event that celebrates local biodiversity is our annual BioBlitz event, where volunteers gather at Masonville Cove to find, identify and record as many species of plants and wildlife as they can find. This year's event, held in July, marked the eighth time we've organized the event, and 88 volunteers made 279 observations and identified 137 different species—from black-eyed Susans to snapping turtles and many species in between. This year's event also served as an opportunity to celebrate Latino Conservation Week.
30x30 and America the Beautiful
The Biden administration officially adopted the country's first national conservation goal to conserve at least 30% of the nation's lands and waters by 2030. This aligns the U.S. with more than 50 countries that endorse an international policy goal to protect at least 30% of the Earth's lands and waters by 2030—known as 30x30. 30x30 is aimed at addressing our planet's rapid biodiversity loss and supporting the systems that reduce carbon emissions, giving natural spaces the protections they need to rebound and resiliently face severe weather changes, warming temperatures and other negative climate change-related impacts. The National Aquarium is proudly one of 180 zoos, aquariums and museums from communities in all 50 states that support the administration's 30x30 goal.
To achieve the first national conservation goal, the Biden administration detailed recommendations for protecting America the Beautiful and laid out a framework for how the federal government will coordinate and support locally led conservation efforts around the country. Pursuant to "America the Beautiful," the Biden administration also restored full protections to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine national monuments. Next steps will include working with stakeholders from the ground up to establish more parks, expand access to nature, enhance wildlife corridors, incentivize voluntary conservation efforts and invest in jobs that support wildlife and ecosystem restoration.
Supporting Sea Turtle Conservation
Experts anticipate increasing demand for organizations like the National Aquarium that rescue, rehabilitate and release endangered sea turtles, especially amid increasing threats from climate change, which directly impacts cold-stunning events. Although sea turtles are federally protected—and despite the high costs associated with sea turtle rehabilitation—there's inadequate direct federal support for organizations like ours that rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles. This year, the National Aquarium intended to help change that.
This year we celebrated World Sea Turtle Day on June 16 by asking our audience to join us and our partners across the country in supporting stronger federal investment for sea turtle stranding response and rehabilitation. Fast forward to the fall, and we are thrilled that the FY22 Senate budget includes $1.5 million in new federal funding for sea turtle stranding response and rehabilitation. We continue to work with partners around the country to ensure this new funding is included in the final budget, which will be the first time that the federal government has provided direct support for organizations permitted for this critical conservation work, helping to fill a major gap in the protection of these endangered, federally protected species.
Reducing Plastic Waste
On October 1 of this year, a ban on intentional balloon releases in the state of Maryland went into effect. Our very own Vice President of Conservation Programs Laura Bankey provided key testimony in support of the bill. Balloon litter is pervasive in waterways and on beaches throughout Maryland and around the world.
Also on October 1, Baltimore City's plastic bag ban was officially implemented. The ban prohibits single-use checkout bags—one of the most ubiquitous types of plastic pollution—at grocery stores and other retailers. The Comprehensive Bag Reduction Act, as it's officially known, was signed into law in 2020 at the National Aquarium.