About 73 miles southeast of the mouth of the Delaware Bay is an underwater canyon that holds deep-sea corals and pools of bubbling methane gas, known as “seeps,” that create a nutrient-rich biodiversity hot spot.
The 149-square-mile area was nominated last year by the National Aquarium in Baltimore to become the nation’s first urban national marine sanctuary through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Then, all of a sudden last week, it wasn’t.
The aquarium announced the withdrawal of the nomination Feb. 1, prompting environmentalists to fear it may have caved to pressure from President Donald Trump.
Sanctuary designation would have protected the canyon from many kinds of exploitation. But it would not have stopped commercial or recreational fishing there, according to the nomination.
“I sort of expected it with the new administration,” said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine. “The way he’s been going, with anti-environmental action, pushing pipelines straight ahead.”
Aquarium Chief Executive Officer John Racanelli posted a brief explanation on the aquarium’s website, saying the move was made after careful consideration, but giving few details. A request for an interview and more information was denied Tuesday. Instead, a spokesperson provided another copy of Racanelli’s statement.
“Although we believe 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,” Racanelli wrote.
“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,” he wrote.
New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said he was extremely disappointed, and called the withdrawal shortsighted.
“The application had everything in it,” Tittel said of the list of natural resources and ecological qualities of the canyon, from deep-sea corals to the first methane cold seep discovered in the mid-Atlantic, and biodiversity of commercial fish and other marine species. “I don’t get it.”
Tittel said he feared the canyon could be vulnerable to everything from mining to gas and oil drilling if not protected.
The aquarium filed an 83-page nomination report last year, outlining why the canyon is unique and worthy of extra protection.
“The canyon itself is dense with biologically important nutrients and chemicals that support a robust food web of bacteria, corals, mussels, sponges, anemones, crabs, lobsters and fish,” said the nomination, which also stressed it is home to the first and one of the largest methane cold seeps discovered in the region.
“Deep-sea corals and rare methane seeps form the basis of a unique ecosystem that nourishes and supports a rich food chain extending upward more than a mile into the water column.”
It also said the corals provide natural refuges for fish and invertebrates, and the canyon’s steep slopes and diverse sediments provide nutrients for highly migratory species such as blue marlin, tuna, pelagic birds, whales and dolphins. Sea turtles also have been documented there.
About 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, the sea level was about 328 feet lower than today, and “it is highly likely that early human populations occupied the region,” the report said.
Human use of the canyon is primarily for commercial and recreational fishing, it said, and fisheries are now managed by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, along with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
Fishing would still be allowed in and around Baltimore Canyon if it became a marine sanctuary. Commercial species caught in the areas around it now include longfin squid, ilex squid, summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, golden tilefish, hake, deep sea red crab, American lobster, Jonah crab and scallops.
The application included dozens of letters of support from universities and other educational groups, politicians, environmental groups and even the Port of Baltimore.
NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries oversees a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters, according to the NOAA website.
The network includes a system of 13 national marine sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments.
The system works with multiple stakeholders “to promote responsible, sustainable ocean uses that ensure the health of our most valued ocean places,” according to NOAA.