National Aquarium sees first attendance increase since recession

Attendance at the National Aquarium's Inner Harbor and Washington venues rose 2.4 percent last year, the first increase since the recession, thanks to an improving economy and a more interactive aquarium experience, CEO John Racanelli said.

The attraction drew 1.55 million people last year, including 1.34 million at the Inner Harbor destination, marking the first increase since 2006.

During an interview Wednesday at The Baltimore Sun, Racanelli said the more than 30-year-old aquarium is repositioning itself to not only offer entertainment, but also to advocate for cleaner, healthier oceans. It is even taking controversial stands such as endorsing the proposed bottle deposit bill in Maryland's General Assembly, which would encourage recycling and reduce litter, he said.

"The ocean is a life-support system for all of us that live on the planet," he said, adding that as the country's only "national" aquarium, "we have a duty to the nation and the world to rally people around the cause of taking care of our life-support system. The next five years could be as important for the health of our oceans and aquatic systems as the last 500."

Over the past year, the Inner Harbor destination has restructured its board, reducing the number of members, from 60 to 20, to operate more efficiently and increase private-sector fundraising.

The goal is to boost the share of fundraising revenue to a third of total revenue. Last year, less than a quarter of the aquarium's $45.7 million revenue came from fundraising, including memberships, private donations and government contributions. The rest came from operations, primarily ticket sales.

"It's critical to grow our philanthropic base because it creates a better diversity of support," Racanelli said. "It's the way to a healthy organization, one that's more buffered from potential external shocks like a recession or natural disaster. Without the money, you can't do the great work."

The organization is searching for a new leader for its development department, training its board to be more effective fundraisers and pursuing support outside the Baltimore region, such as philanthropists with a technology background, he said.

The aquarium plans to expand its mission from one of entertainment and education to one of environmental advocacy, Racanelli said. It hopes to reach some 100 million people over the next five years, partly through social media, to spread a message about taking action to conserve oceans and aquatic life, he said. Ideas include urging people to participate in beach cleanups or buying only sustainably harvested seafood.

He argued it's critical to take steps now because of the many risks facing oceans: an overabundance of carbon in the water; loss of habitat; overfishing; debris such as plastics; and too many nutrients, such as fertilizers, that feed oxygen-consuming organisms and create dead zones.

The aquarium is spearheading an effort to involve aquariums around the country as a way to tap into the 30 million people who attend those facilities annually.

Now, Racanelli said, "we don't send out a unified message about conservation."

The aquarium, the city's top paid tourist attraction, which generates an annual economic impact of nearly $320 million in the Baltimore and Washington regions, mostly attracts out-of-state visitors, according to a report released last month.

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