2023 Recap: Conservation Wins

As this year comes to an end, we're taking a look at some of our biggest conservation wins.

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As we look back at 2023, there are many conservation developments to celebrate. Throughout the year, our work focused on our three overarching goals to combat climate change, save wildlife and habitats and stop plastic pollution. Let's look at the progress in each category.

Combatting Climate Change

Earlier this year, we continued our dune restoration efforts at Naval Air Station Oceana Dam Neck Annex in Virginia Beach, Virginia. To improve dune habitat and coastal resilience, we planted 30,000 grasses and shrubs with the help of 230 volunteers. After five years of successful planting efforts under a cooperative agreement, our focus will shift to invasive species eradication through 2028.

Dune grasses weren't the only things planted this year. In the spring, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, we organized students from Snow Hill Middle School and Berlin Intermediate, as well as other community volunteers, to plant 4,500 Atlantic white cedar trees at Nassawango Creek Preserve. This planting is part of an ongoing process to revitalize the Atlantic white cedar tree population at Nassawango, and staff have observed that trees planted years ago are now reproducing on their own. Additionally, Aquarium and Maryland Zoo staff came together to plant 40 trees around Leon Day Park in Baltimore City to combat extreme heat and absorb greenhouse gases.

The Maryland General Assembly also passed the bipartisan POWER Act that set an impressive goal of 8.5 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity in Maryland by 2031, which will help the state meet its emissions reduction targets while improving labor standards for offshore wind energy. The National Aquarium and the National Wildlife Federation were key partners in ensuring plans for the construction and operations of offshore wind facilities included provisions for wildlife protection.

We also replaced the theatrical fixtures and the recessed ceiling lights in the Aquarium's 4D theater with high-quality, energy-efficient LED fixtures and bulbs. These updates will save 8 million kilowatt hours of energy per year and help the Aquarium become net-zero by 2035.

Saving Wildlife and Habitats

Earlier this year, the Aquarium earned a renewal of our Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation. To earn this accreditation, the Aquarium submitted a detailed application and underwent multiple on-site inspections by an external team of zoological professionals. They examined facility operations, including animal care and wellbeing, guest services, risk management, conservation programs and more. Fewer than 10% of the 2,800 animal exhibitors registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are accredited through the AZA. This accreditation will last five years and continue the Aquarium's continuous accreditation since 1984.

In May, we released a locally rescued loggerhead sea turtle named Glockenspiel. Around the same time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) allocated $500,000 to organizations that rehabilitate sea turtles and/or respond to sea turtle strandings. We advocated for this funding, marking the first-ever direct federal support for organizations that rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles, all of which are threatened or endangered species. The National Aquarium continues to help lead a cross-country effort to pass the Sea Turtle Rescue Assistance Act. This bipartisan, bicameral legislation was reintroduced to the current Congress and again advanced out of its committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. This legislative effort brings us closer to permanent sea turtle rescue funding under NOAA.

To expand our rescue capabilities, we've established a full-time presence of National Aquarium Animal Rescue staff and volunteers at Ocean City, Maryland. This formal partnership with the Town of Ocean City established a private animal triage and exam space that the Aquarium team will use to stabilize rescued animals before transporting them to Baltimore.

Additionally, the Aquarium was once again the regional coordinator for the City Nature Challenge in the Baltimore metropolitan area. This included hosting a public BioBlitz event in Patterson Park to support a global wildlife species identification competition. Members of nearby communities, Patterson Park Audubon Center staff and Aquarium youth exhibit guides participated in this event and documented over 500 observations. Overall, 550 community scientists in the Baltimore metropolitan area participated during the four-day City Nature Challenge competition, documenting 7,785 observations of 1,305 different species of wildlife.

We also supported two conferences this year to facilitate dialogue in the scientific and animal care community. In partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Aquarium hosted Jelly Camp in October. This conference included workshops, poster presentations and behind-the-scenes facilities tours. In total, 65 jelly experts attended from three countries (U.S., Canada and the Bahamas). We also co-hosted the Greater Atlantic Regional Stranding Conference, which focused on enhancing knowledge and collaboration between marine animal stranding partners along the Eastern Seaboard.

Stopping Plastic Pollution

The Aquarium hosted a zero-waste event this fall, ensuring 90% of the event waste was diverted, including 102 pounds of recycling, 116 pounds of compost and 11 pounds of aluminum cups (saved for reuse), for a total of 229 pounds of waste kept out of landfills. To further improve our waste practices, we conducted a waste audit of our facilities and are evaluating different avenues for improvement.

The Aquarium held several shoreline and community cleanups to remove plastic from waterways and wetlands around Maryland this year, including the first-ever Ocean City cleanup with our new Animal Rescue partners. This year, 68,866 pieces of plastic debris were removed from our waterways. Over 96% of all debris collected from cleanups was plastic. The top three plastic items found were bottle caps, drink bottles and food wrappers, for a total of 17,071 pieces, accounting for 25% of the plastic trash collected.

As the year winds down, we have both national and local plastic policy updates to celebrate. In September, the Department of the Interior published its plans to eliminate single-use plastic in all U.S. National Parks. Plastic accounts for a significant percentage of the roughly 70 million tons of trash generated from visitation to National Parks each year. We and several other Aquarium Conservation Partnership members, alongside hundreds of organizations, have pushed for this change for years and are excited to see progress. This November, Baltimore County's Bring Your Own Bag Act went into effect after passing earlier this year. While the law as enacted is not as effective as introduced and does not have key provisions that the Aquarium and others advocated for, the policy does ban the distribution of single-use plastic carryout bags by many Baltimore County retail businesses and incentivizes people to bring reusable bags when shopping. The Aquarium continues to advocate for policies at all levels of government to reduce plastic production and use, clean up existing plastic pollution and support education and outreach about the need to stop plastic pollution.

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