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National Aquarium’s Racanelli diving right in

John C. Racanelli wears the well-tailored suit and Windsor-knotted tie of a metropolitan CEO, but the National Aquarium’s chief executive harbors ideas that were formed amid aquatic adventures that came long before he rose to that post.

John C. Racanelli

With conservation lessons learned on those trips guiding his hand, Racanelli, 57, is trying to re-emphasize the 31-year-old Baltimore landmark’s importance as a national leader in its field.

“One of the ways we’re trying to bring to life this concept of being national is engaging in a much more forthright way in conservation issues that affect oceans, bays, waterways across the world — starting with the Chesapeake, but beyond that,” Racanelli said recently in a wide-ranging interview with editorial staff of The Daily Record.

Founded in 1981, Baltimore’s aquarium has long been considered one of the top aquatic museums in the nation. When Racanelli began his aquarium career at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., he said, he wasted little time in heading east for inspiration.

“One of the first things I did was take my trip to Mecca, came here,” Racanelli said. “It all began here. The whole movement towards a greater understanding, towards aquariums that have something more to them than just an entertainment venue, began with the National Aquarium.”

Now that he’s here, Racanelli said, the focus on conservation has become even sharper.

“I see Maryland as a blue state — not just because of politics, but because water is so essential to its future,” he said. “We want to represent that particular blue. So, anything we can do to help improve the quality of waterways … we want to try and do.”

Racanelli’s travels have come full circle; he actually came to Baltimore for the first time in 1976. The Inner Harbor was quite different then. And there was no aquarium.

“I had a bit of an adventuresome streak,” Racanelli said. “The first trip was coming to Baltimore on a tall ship in the bicentennial of 1976. My first arrival here was on board a 180-foot brigantine, and we tied up at Pier 3, which didn’t look the same.

“I’ve heard from people that … back then, the harbor was really a lot of sailors in bars. I said, ‘Yeah, come to think of it, I think I was one of them.’”

Life lessons from crabs

From there, Racanelli said, he went off to Alaska for a year to fish for king crabs and salmon. It was there that his guiding principles were discovered.

“It really formed a lot of my personal convictions about conservation,” Racanelli said. “One of the things I saw was there was no way that these giant boats could take this much crab out of a place even as big as the Bering Sea and not ultimately impact it.

“We took 185 million pounds of crabs out in 1977 and, indeed, by 1979, that crab fishery had collapsed.”

In June, National Aquarium CEO John C. Racanelli dove into one of the aquarium’s exhibits to commemorate World Oceans Day.

He returned to California after that year and began work cleaning dolphin and shark tanks at a park called Marine World before joining the staff at Monterey Bay. His work in California ultimately landed him a job as the Florida Aquarium in Tampa’s first CEO. He again took a delegation to visit Baltimore’s aquarium.

Last July, Racanelli came to Baltimore to stay, envisioning a future for the National Aquarium in which it delights patrons, is financially stable and is capable of making a meaningful impact on conservation.

In the last several years, Racanelli said, the aquarium staff has quietly restored some 150 acres of Chesapeake Bay wetlands. Soon, he’ll be hiring a vice president of conservation to enhance that work, and he has pledged to dive into the Inner Harbor on Jan. 1, 2020, to promote the Healthy Harbor initiative’s goal of having a swimmable and fishable harbor by 2020.

“Our focus is on both wetlands and watersheds, the Chesapeake Bay being one the finest examples of that in the world,” Racanelli said. “But also on dolphins, since we exhibit them here and feel very strongly they need the kind of protection in this world that they deserve.”

Save the sharks

Efforts to promote marine animal conservation aren’t limited to dolphins. Racanelli said his most challenging task has been making a conservation argument for what may be the ocean’s most feared creature: the shark. A soon-to-be-completed exhibit will explain how sharks protect coral reefs.

The challenge, he said, is convincing the public that sharks aren’t necessarily vicious murderers.

“People don’t get it, but sharks are very important to our future, too,” he said. “Although once ‘man-eating shark’ referred to jaws coming in for the kill, nowadays it refers to any restaurant you go into and a guy with a fork and a knife — that’s a man, eating shark.

“They eat a whole lot fewer of us than we eat of them. It’s really hard to drum up love for sharks, but by golly we’re trying.”

It’s hard to drum up money in the current economic climate, too, Racanelli said. About three-quarters of the aquarium’s revenue is generated through ticket sales, but he wishes that percentage was closer to two-thirds. The recession has slowed state and local funding, and federal grants have gone to zero.

That puts a lot of pressure on the new CEO to find the money needed not only to maintain the aquarium — it must spend $6.5 million a year just to fight depreciation — but also to improve its exhibits and conservation efforts.

The emphasis on conservation, he said, helps bring in some of those dollars.

“The big foundations and even individuals out there that really want to see positive change, they love the fact that we’re a viable, successful enterprise,” Racanelli said. “But they really like that we’re pushing farther in new directions for conservation.

“A number of individuals and foundations have really responded to the idea that what we’re doing here is continuing a tradition that we’ve had for three decades now of a very successful public aquarium — but doing it for the purpose of making sure that people take on their part to help make waterways healthier. That does resonate with donors.”

The aquarium is looking for state money this year, too, he said. Racanelli has asked Gov. Martin O’Malley include $5 million in his fiscal year 2014 capital budget for the aquarium — money that Racanelli is pledging to match 2-to-1.

Killer plastic

He also expects the aquarium to engage in limited legislative advocacy, including educating lawmakers about the potential benefits of approving policy that somehow limits the proliferation of one-use plastics.

“Plastic is a persistent compound that does not biodegrade,” Racanelli said, waving a pen made from recycled plastic as he spoke. “Every piece of plastic we’ve invented is still in existence.”

Not that he intends to entangle the National Aquarium in State House politics. He just wants to ensure the institution’s value is understood and acknowledged for centuries to come.

“You have to really take that long view,” he said. “This is an institution that I hope will stand for hundreds of years and be to aquariums and the United States as the Acropolis is to Greece, or the Parthenon is, or in Rome the Pantheon, the Colosseum.

“These are great institutions that had a purpose and a mission and that persist even to this day.”