Aquarium unveils new Conservation Center

The National Aquarium is set Thursday to unveil its new Conservation Center, established to focus the institution's work in marine conservation and research, and to expand its scope to a national and global stage.

In cooperation with scientists at aquariums and universities here and across the country, the center's researchers are already at work tracking contaminants from the BP oil well blowout, and studying threatened eagle rays.

"With what's happening to the environment today, with the pressure of human activity, [the board felt] a need to do something more significant, more meaningful in terms of protecting the environment," said Erik Rifkin, a marine zoologist, aquarium board member and interim director of the new National Aquarium Conservation Center.

The center will also dedicate itself to the study and protection of dolphins and other small marine mammals, and advocate for an end to the collection of these species from the wild for display.

The National Aquarium became a target of animal rights advocates in the 1980s who demonstrated in opposition to the aquarium's expeditions to capture wild dolphins and beluga whales for its collections.

Those days are over, according to Rifkin.

"It has been a while since they collected them, but … it was a major decision and involved a great deal of discussion," he said. "That [wild collection of marine mammals] will never happen again."

The aquarium today has a successful captive dolphin breeding program and a respected marine mammal rescue program.

It has also been engaged for many years in wildlife and environmental conservation projects in the Chesapeake Bay, Florida, Costa Rica and the Bahamas. The new Conservation Center provides a platform for continuing that work and expanding it.

The Conservation Center has begun to provide funding for research in cooperation with scientists at institutions such as the New England Aquarium in Boston, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and the University of Maryland Center of Marine Biotechnology.

Work is under way in Sarasota with Mote and the Johns Hopkins University to study the movement of contaminants from the BP oil spill through the Gulf's ecosystem.

Another study is looking at mercury levels in dolphins in Sarasota Bay, in the aquarium's own dolphins collection, and in the food they eat. Another project is measuring sediment contamination in Baltimore Harbor.

With $700,000 in grants from the aquarium, the Conservation Center has hired several scientists to work on center projects. In five years, Rifkin expects the center will have an operating budget in the "middle seven figures," mostly from foundations, board members and other grant-making organizations.

"There's a lot of interest in what we're doing," he said. "The people I've talked to have been very encouraged about what we're funding and the direction the aquarium is taking now. Whether that encouragement translates into actual cash, I don't know. But my gut tells me it probably will."

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