“A book is just like life and anything can change,” wrote Dr. Seuss. The same can be said for a river and the one fish, two fish, or 71 kinds of fish within it.
The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire was not the first as industrial and urban progress had plagued the river for decades prior. A 1967 television documentary narrator described the river as lifeless and dead, and the corresponding footage — along with a 1968 report on the fish in the Cuyahoga — left little to argue.
Kent State University hosted a Cuyahoga River symposium in 1968, and as summarized in a 2001 University of Minnesota journal report by Jeff Zeitler, the panelists put the river’s dire straits into perspective:
At its worst in 1968, the Lower Cuyahoga River supported only 2 species; Carassius auratus and Lepomis macrochirus at one sample site out of 23 and no fish at the other 22 sites. Oscillatoriaalgae were the only species of plant or animal found at some sites, (Simpson et al. 1968).
Those two fish species are significant: bluegill (a very pollution-tolerant fish) and goldfish (both pollution-tolerant and invasive). No other fish were reported found in the samples taken. Pollution was literally suffocating life in the Cuyahoga River.
Since 1990, our Water Quality & Industrial Surveillance team has been collecting fish at more than 20 points along the river and what they have seen aligns with the environmental progress the river has made over the last 50 years: We’ve identified more than 70 species, many of which are very sensitive to pollution and whose presence indicates improving water quality.
From industrial pretreatment regulations to environmental policies at state and national levels, changes have helped to protect and restore life in this once nearly lifeless river. Our commitment is that the Cuyahoga River is protected today and for generations to come.
Fifty years ago, this river burned. But a river is just like life and anything can change.