In June 1969, the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland caught fire. The river caught fire. Thickly polluted with sludge and waste from industries, the river’s surface burst into flames when touched by a spark from a train passing on a bridge above.
Rachel Carson had exposed our industrial abuse of the environment with “Silent Spring” in 1962. But it was the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire that finally pushed our government into action.
This month, we celebrate the 40th anniversaries of two key federal responses: the Clean Water Act (on Oct. 18) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (on Oct. 21). These 1972 acts have been global models in helping to restore our lakes, rivers and oceans back toward the clean and diversely populated natural — and national — resources they once were.
The Clean Water Act established rules that made it illegal to dump un-permitted pollutants into waterways and empowered the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to punish those who do. It also reinforced water-quality standards, gave new protections to wetlands and funded the construction of municipal sewage-treatment plants.
These governmental efforts were huge first steps that were mandated by an angry and appalled citizenry, who have continued to take action. Across America, environmental advocates, industrialists, civic leaders and state, federal and local policymakers have worked together so that people can boat, swim and fish in waters that were deemed unsafe a generation ago.
Terry Backer, for example, has been a staunch defender of our waters as the Soundkeeper now for 25 years. Locally, we have the Norwalk River Watershed Initiative, a partnership among the river’s seven watershed municipalities, plus federal and state governments, conservation and environmental groups, businesses and the public, all working together to address local water-quality and resource-protection issues.
Similarly but on a larger scale, the Long Island Sound Study (LISS) is bi-state partnership consisting of federal and state agencies, user groups and concerned organizations and individuals dedicated to restoring and protecting Long Island Sound.
The LISS was created in 1985. Around the same time, another passionate group of civic leaders began putting together plans for an aquarium in South Norwalk that would focus on teaching visitors about the Sound and its animals. When The Maritime Aquarium opened in 1988, seals were rare winter visitors to the Sound. Their New England populations were only beginning to rebound after decades of attack by Gulf of Maine fishermen, who saw seals as being competition for their livelihood and so freely shot them.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 stopped that practice, giving sweeping safeguards to not just seals but also dolphins, whales, manatees and even sea otters and polar bears. Under the law’s protections, populations of threatened species — such as whales, elephant seals, the West Indian manatee and the Pacific harbor seal — are rebounding. Gray seals off Cape Cod now have established one of the largest “haul-out” sites on the Atlantic coast. And The Maritime Aquarium’s Winter Creature Cruises have helped to document a large population of seals in Long Island Sound each winter. There’s now evidence that a small number of seals are staying year-round.
The Maritime Aquarium encourages everyone to remain passionate and active stewards of our environment. Our keeping a good keen eye on the dirty ways of the world will prevent our waters from returning to their sad dirty ways.