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Baltimore should adopt the Baltimore Canyon

Would it surprise you to learn that just 70 miles off the coast of Maryland, there is a major submarine canyon bearing our city's name? At 28 miles long, 5 miles wide, and more than 1,500 feet deep at its mouth, the Baltimore Canyon is approximately the depth of eight and a half World Trade Center Baltimore buildings stacked upon each other.

Most importantly, this canyon is an ecological treasure containing rare, irreplaceable deep sea corals along with seldom seen biological phenomena known as cold-water methane seeps, which are critical for sustaining the food web and our local fishing economy. While methane seeps on land are considered dangerous, in the ocean they are considered a gift, and we are fortunate to have in the canyon one of the largest seeps in the north Atlantic.

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It is interesting that this canyon bears our name, yet so few of us have heard of it or appreciate its ecological significance and contributions to our daily life. The "out of sight, out of mind" paradox seems to reign supreme when characterizing most urban areas and the marine environment, which is a disconnect that is unfortunate. We are both a rapidly urbanizing nation with 85 percent of Americans projected to live in urban areas by 2050 — an almost 180 degree reversal of where people lived just 100 years ago — as well as a nation increasingly dependent upon our oceans.

Oceans provide over 50 percent of our oxygen supply, serve as our greatest carbon sink, supply us with food and directly account for over 2.8 million jobs in the U.S. economy. Moreover, oceans help regulate our weather and climate — a particularly important feature for cities suffering from urban heat island effects.

So, why aren't people in Baltimore familiar with the Baltimore Canyon? In short, ocean literacy, the study of the ocean's influence on human life and vice versa, is largely absent from most schools' science curriculum. Which leads us to a key question: As ocean exploration becomes the new final frontier after space exploration, will our urban youth be equipped to access and enter this new field?

The National Aquarium believes that the Baltimore Canyon presents us with an opportunity to connect our youth and citizens to the deep seas. Before the end of the year, we intend to nominate the Baltimore Canyon as our nation's first urban national marine sanctuary through the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) National Marine Sanctuary designation process. Maryland is becoming a burgeoning bio-technology hub, attracting numerous technology companies that specialize in visualization technology, robotics, acoustic sonar sensors and ocean mapping, to name a few. Wouldn't it be beneficial to expose our youth to these technologies using the sanctuary as our base for exploration?

This is not a pipe dream. Once the canyon is designated as a sanctuary, the National Aquarium, working in tandem with NOAA, commits to use its platform to educate its 1.3 million visitors, community partners and youth on the significance of our deep seas and the canyon. Additionally, by partnering with some of our nation's foremost research and technology firms that now call Maryland home, we can use the canyon as a living laboratory, creating new STEM career pathways for our youth, teaching ocean literacy, sparking economic development and ensuring equal access for all to the next and final frontier.

The Baltimore Canyon merits sanctuary designation. The primary protective safeguard will be to ensure the canyon remains free from extractive industries. While reliable energy is important to all of us, there are some places that simply should not be developed. The Baltimore Canyon is such a place. Worldwide, less than 5 percent of the ocean has been protected as compared to approximately 15 percent of the world's special terrestrial places. It is time we allow our oceans to strategically catch up.

To make this dream a reality of connecting our urban areas to the ocean, we need Baltimore to lead the nation and adopt the Baltimore Canyon. Already, Baltimore City Public Schools, the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, Duke Energy, the National Wildlife Federation and a wide array of other stakeholders and citizens have joined the campaign to support the designation of the Baltimore Canyon as our nation's first urban national marine sanctuary. You can do so, too, by writing support letters and signing the online petition at aqua.org/baltimorecanyon.

Kris Hoellen (KHoellen@aqua.org) is the senior vice president and chief conservation officer for the National Aquarium.

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