This year is the 40th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire, an event that has come to symbolize environmental degradation. The current condition of the river symbolizes something else worth recalling in the wake of Earth Day — environmental improvement, from abysmal conditions.
On June 22, 1969, an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River caught fire and burned for 20 minutes, causing $50,000 in damage to a railway trestle. There had been more serious river fires, including one on the same river in 1936 that burned for five days. A few years after the 1969 fire, a federal report found that the lower Cuyahoga had “no visible signs of life,” not even leeches and sludge worms that thrive on waste.
During the 1980s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency began assessing fish populations in the stretch of the river from Akron to Cleveland. Biologists would return with only 10 actual fish — not fish from 10 species. In the summer of 2008, in the same stretch of the river, biologists found 40 different species of fish, including steelhead trout and northern pike.
“It’s been an absolutely amazing recovery,” Steve Tuckerman of the Ohio EPA told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I wouldn’t have believed that this section of the river would have this dramatic of a turnaround in my career, but it has.”
Indeed, in 2009, the Cuyahoga is expected this year to meet the federal Clean Water Act’s stringent standard for healthy habitat for aquatic life. But federal action has not always proved beneficial for water quality and fish populations.
Before the 1969 fire, local officials in Ohio aimed to tackle pollution with a $100-million bond issue to finance cleanup, litigation against polluters, and greater enforcement of state water pollution control statutes. Such measures received a great deal of support from the Cleveland business community. In contrast, the federal government provided “not one dime” of assistance despite the Cuyahoga’s role as a serious polluter of Lake Erie, a major interstate water body.
The Cuyahoga is not the only body of water to show improvement. Whitefish are again spawning in the Detroit River, for the first time in decades. There is also some good news for commercial fishermen. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), assesses more than 500 discrete fisheries in the coastal waters of the United States. The general finding of the NMFS 2008 report is that U.S. fisheries are improving at a rapid pace.
Seven stocks are no longer subject to overfishing, writes NMFS administrator James Balsiger, four stocks have increased biomass and are no longer overfished, and three stocks have been “fully rebuilt.” Further, no stocks have been found newly subject to overfishing, and the number of overfished stocks has decreased from 47 to 45. Those stocks that are overfished stand to benefit from a different approach to conservation.
Science magazine has discovered what market-oriented environmentalists have known for two decades, that applying property rights to fisheries is an effective way of protecting and enhancing fish stocks. Or, as the headline in Science put it last September 19, “Privatization Prevents Collapse of Fish Stocks, Global Analysis Shows.” Science estimates that global adoption of property rights for fisheries could have reduced fisheries collapse by nearly two-thirds, from roughly 26 percent to about nine percent.
This year is also the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which a tanker spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Twenty years later, the sound has returned almost completely to its pre-spill condition. Polycyclic aromatic and saturated hydrocarbons (PAH and SHC) in mussels and oceanbed sediment are trending to very low near-pristine background levels, according to a report in Marine Pollution Bulletin.
There is a long way to go on some fronts, but environmental improvement deserves recognition. On the lower Cuyahoga and elsewhere, there is good reason to celebrate. Go fishing for a change.
K. Lloyd Billingsley is director of editorial services at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.