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Cuyahoga River Reborn

The Cuyahoga River famously caught fire on June 22, 1969, inspiring several songs and sullying Cleveland’s reputation for generations. But do you know the real history of our beloved river?

The Cuyahoga River officially begins about 35 miles east of Cleveland and continues its 85-mile journey south to Akron, where it turns sharply north and flows through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to Lake Erie. The depth of the river ranges from 3 to 6 ft. except at the last 6 miles, where it is dredged to a depth of 27 feet.

Originally the river bed’s last bend took the mouth westward along the lakeshore to W. 54th St., until the present mouth was dug in 1827 to form Whiskey Island and a more direct channel which leads straight into Lake Erie.

The Cuyahoga actually caught on fire 13 times. The first fire occurred in 1868, just after the Civil War. The largest fire occurred in 1952, causing more than $1 million damage and the deadliest fire was in 1912, killing five men.

The Cuyahoga is not the only river that caught fire in US history. Rivers in Washington, D.C., Omaha, Buffalo, Dearborn and Philadelphia all caught fire as well.

By 1968, the reach from Akron to Cleveland was devoid of fish. Mayor Carl Stokes began advocating to clean up the river. Cleveland voters approved a $100 million bond issue to finance river cleanup efforts, including sewer system improvements, debris removal and stormwater overflow controls.

On June 22, 1969, just before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon, the river burned for the last time. The event was not considered “big news” and in fact there are no photos of the actual fire since news media did not make it there fast enough. However, on August 1, 1969, that small fire on the Cuyahoga river captured the attention of Time magazine, which described it as the river that “oozes rather than flows” and in which a person “does not drown but decays”.

Inspired by the 1969 river fire, the Time article and other initiatives, Congress passed the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) which was signed into law on January 1, 1970.  This act helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One of the first legislations that the EPA put-forth was the Clean Water Act (1972), which mandated that all rivers throughout the United States be hygienic enough to safely allow mass amounts of swimmers and fish within the water by 1983.

The river’s water quality finally began to improve during the following decades, and by the 1980s business investors capitalized on this by converting parts of the Flats’ abandoned industrial landscape into an entertainment district featuring restaurants, nightclubs, and music venues.

Recent water tests have found the cleanest river readings in the past 20 years and it is now home to about 60 different species of fish. The river continues to serve as the center of an active maritime industry, a growing recreational attraction, the link that connects the cities of Cleveland and Akron, the home of a national park, and the hub of Cleveland’s urban revitalization.

It took us about 100 years of fires on the river to finally take action, but once we did, the river reached an acceptable water quality level in less than 50 years. There’s still work to be done, but going from 0 species of fish to 60 species of fish represents great progress. And in the future, our hope is that the burning river will only refer to a really great beer.

If you have a group that would like to learn more about a #riverreborn, please contact us to have a speaker make a presentation!



Our Plastic Pollution Problem

It is estimated that more than 8 million tons of plastic trash enter our oceans each year. If that is not shocking enough, this story also hits close to home. According to a study done by the Rochester Institute of Technology, it has been discovered that 5.5 million pounds of plastic goes directly into Lake Erie (Zukowski). This plastic includes visible and micro-plastics which are dangerous to both people and wildlife. The most common plastics found near the shores of Lake Erie include cigarette butts, bags, bottles, caps, straws, and even flip flops.



Fortunately, we can do something to help. There are several small changes we can make in our daily lives which will create a big change for the environment. These include:

  • Recycling – It is estimated that 1 trillion plastic bags are thrown away each year, and of the 1 million bottles purchased every minute around the world, less than half of those will be recycled. Recycling those bags and bottles will help cut down on the amount of “new” plastic in circulation.
  • Skipping the Straw – 500 million plastic straws are used each day in the United States. An easy fix to not using a plastic straw is to invest in a reusable stainless steel or glass straw. Furthermore, companies such as Starbucks are starting to get on the no straw trend, as they are now giving a 10 cent discount to customers who bring in a reusable cup. Some stores are also beginning to use paper straws which are less harmful to wildlife and the environment (Nuñez).
  • Keeping Our Coasts Clean – A fun and rewarding way to help cut down on the amount of plastic pollution entering our oceans and lakes is by volunteering for a beach clean up. The Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s Splash Fund organizes Adopt-A-Beach cleanups with the Alliance for the Great Lakes every summer. To register for our beach cleanups, please visit You can find the Aquarium hosted cleanups by searching the date of the event, the location  (Lakefront Reservation – Edgewater), or both. Then click on the event and follow the steps to register. Registration is important because it gives us an idea of how many people to expect and also provides contact information so that we can keep everyone up to date on details or changes (i.e. the weather does not cooperate). We hope to see you there!




Putting it to the Test: Cuyahoga River’s Water Quality

Cuyahoga means “crooked river,” for good reason; it kind of looks like a backwards letter “U.” The river begins with two separate branches in Geauga County which join and flow south through the city of Akron.  The river then comes back north to Cleveland and empties out in Lake Erie.

Throughout the 1800s, Ohio grew. The Ohio and Erie Canal gave local businesses and farms access to resources. That connectivity meant Ohio’s farmers could sell their goods for higher prices in a more competitive market.

But as industry and population grew there were some consequences. The Cuyahoga River suffered. Minimal laws for waste regulation combined with chemical and steel materials dumped into the river – the Cuyahoga caught on fire not once or twice, but thirteen times. The most famous fire, in 1969, gained national attention and began an environmental movement that sparked initiatives such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Cuyahoga began to clear.

Through its Rivers & Lakes: Keeping the Great Lakes and our Water Quality Scientist programs, the Aquarium brings students to the River’s banks to test its water quality the day of their visit. Using the scientific method, students determine if the water is excellent, good, fair or poor.

These tests take temperature as well as pH and nitrate levels into account. Students then discuss why it is important to test for these particular things and what variables can change the result. For example, oxygen levels can drop if the water is stagnant, phosphate levels will spike if farm fertilizer runoff enters the water and nitrate levels rise whenever human sewage is dumped in the river from sewer overflow points.  According to our Erin Bauer, Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s Education Coordinator, most days the Cuyahoga’s health comes out “fairly good,” but says there’s always room for improvement.

Students tend to have a range of reactions to being out by the river. Bauer states, “Getting to throw a water sample collection bucket into the river is always a highlight. Hearing kids make observations about what they see is always great. There are always a few ‘Eww, the brown water is nasty!’ and ‘Look at those plastic bottles out there.’  But there are also observations like ‘Cool! Look at those sea gulls!’ or ‘Wow, it’s bigger than I thought!’” Bauer is particularly happy when a barge passes by and the students can see how the river contributes to the region’s transportation needs.

The program has help from Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) which provides the tubes and tablets needed to test water quality.  They also gifted us an enviroscape model that illustrates waste water treatment, drinking water treatment, runoff in the watershed and combined sewers.

Facilitating connections between students and our natural resources is important and Bauer says, “NEORSD and the Aquarium share a desire to educate youth about the urban water cycle.”

Visiting students are asked to brainstorm ways they can make a positive environmental difference for the Cuyahoga River.  For example, buying organic produce can reduce phosphate levels, planting trees can decrease turbidity, and reducing water volume while showering or brushing teeth ultimately leads to a decrease in sewer overflow.

– Morgan Wright




How Every Day Can Be ‘America Recycles Day’

If you visit on November 15, you can join us in celebrating America Recycles Day! Although we’ll be highlighting the benefits of recycling on Wednesday, throughout the year we’ve been trying to reduce, reuse and recycle more.

Did you know that more than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year? That’s not good for us or for our aquatic friends. Based on waste audits done by the Aquarium’s Green Team we estimate that by the end of this year we will have kept 2700 pounds of plastic out of landfills.

What can you do to minimize plastic and other non-biodegradable waste? First off, if you are not already recycling at home, then start. It’s not hard just go to your City’s website and find out what is accepted. (If you live in Cuyahoga County it is

Making recycling simple and convenient for your family makes it more likely they’ll participate. Try designating a bin in each living area that generates waste (kitchen, laundry room and bathroom). Then, label the containers with signs that list what is acceptable so no one puts an item that doesn’t belong.

Don’t think what you do matters? Here are some great facts about the benefits of recycling that illustrate just how much you can impact the environment by making small changes:

  • Recycling one ton of paper conserves 17 trees
  • Recycling just 48 cans is the energy equivalent of conserving one gallon of gas
  • Recycling plastic takes 88% less energy than making plastic from raw materials
  • Aluminum cans made from recycled aluminum use only 8 BTUs, which is a 95% energy savings

– Charlotte Cotter, Guest Experience Senior Lead

10-in-the-Bin America Recycles Day

5 Reasons to Visit Our River Hut

We encourage you to take a closer look at the Cuyahoga this summer. Situated along the boardwalk, our River Hut presented by Cleveland Clinic Children’s offers different perspectives on Cleveland’s crooked river. Here are five reasons to make the River Hut an outdoor stop on your next weekend visit to the West Bank of the Flats:

1. You can learn how to test the Cuyahoga River’s water quality using kits provided by Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.


2. You can enjoy a packed lunch at our waterfront picnic tables—front row seats to watch an array of interesting boats pass by.


3. You can challenge your friends and family to a game of fish corn hole before taking a commemorative pre-framed photo with a bridge view.


4. You can expand your knowledge of Ohio native fish by playing a matching game right on the boardwalk. (Then head into the Aquarium to see and learn more about channel catfish, largemouth bass, shovelnose sturgeon, rainbow darter, river chub and other fish native to the Buckeye State.)


5. Did I mention the River Hut is right on the boardwalk? Thanks to ArcelorMittal, this summer you can hop back and forth between the East and West banks of the Flats on the Metroparks Water Taxi for free!

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Weather permitting, the River Hut is open 10am – 4pm on Saturday and Sunday through Labor Day.

World Oceans Day

Imagine living in a beautiful, underwater world where there’s nothing but the rays of the sun and your fellow aquatic friends surrounding you. Then the next thing you know, you’re surrounded by a sea of… what’s that? Pollution. Trash floating everywhere. There’s nothing more alarming to marine life than being caught in a fishing net or consuming litter that is extremely harmful to the animal’s life.


To get a glimpse of how harmful pollution can be for the animals, here are some alarming statistics. Plastic takes about 400 years to degrade in the water. Remember that favorite can of soda you love drinking? Well that takes about 200 years to degrade in the ocean. In the meantime, the pollution just hangs around, harming any animal in its way. According to Plastic Oceans, “1 in 3 species of all marine mammals have been found entangled in marine litter.” As tourists and even local people, we have to be more mindful of our actions and what we can do to protect our oceans.

cans in the ocean

Another dangerous effect of trash floating and sinking in the ocean are the chemicals that the pollution can emit. Fish and other animals will consume these chemicals, potentially killing them and even causing negative side effects to humans. How you ask? The fish consume the marine litter. We catch the fish and then we eat the fish. Now we have the same chemicals in our body that make us sick. The thing is, the animals don’t know what they’re about to be tangled in or consume. We know exactly what we’re putting into the ocean, but also may not realize the effects it has on our aquatic friends. So what can you do to help revive our oceans and save our underwater world?

marine litter

We as humans and ocean lovers need to be more conscious of pollution in the ocean and on the beaches. By picking up all of your trash, you’re reducing the chance of the waves snatching it during high tide and being carried into the ocean. If you see trash laying on the beach or in the ocean, don’t be afraid to grab it and throw it away or recycle it. Even the most simple act of picking up one water bottle can lead to a whole movement of reduced pollution and one more sea creature living a longer life. No matter who or how old you are, you can make a difference in protecting marine life making our oceans a cleaner and safer place.





Backyard Wildlife

Springtime, for many people, intuitively brings an awareness of renewal and life. The trees flower, the insects emerge, and of course baby wildlife is a wondrous sight. What can equal the rapture upon observing a baby deer take its first steps or a little bird learning to fly? People may come across baby animals in their backyards while clearing brush from last fall, when they begin to mow their lawns, or trimming trees and bushes. Sometimes, accidents happen and can leave wildlife injured or orphaned. Often, these people then want to then care for the animals and raise them. Although the intention is well-placed, most people do not have the information or resources to accomplish this properly and for the optimal health of the animals. This is where wildlife rehabilitators come in.

wildlife-rehabilitation-hawkA wildlife rehabilitator is a person who has acquired the knowledge and permits, and understands the commitment involved in caring for an orphaned or injured animal. In Ohio, it is actually illegal to rear wildlife without a permit. This is for the protection of not only the wildlife, but also the people who wish to help. Wildlife can carry bacteria and viruses that are harmful to people; these types of illnesses are called zoonotic diseases. The wildlife rehabilitator would have gone through training to be able to identify the symptoms of such diseases and can take measures to protect oneself and provide the proper care for the animal.

1520362404_8d93ec1490_zFurther, baby animals require highly specific diets vital to their growth and development. Cow’s milk from the store is not even a close substitute for most of the wildlife a person would come across. Just imagine the tiny bones of a squirrel and the functionality they provide that animal when dashing through the trees. The ingredients in cow milk are simply not suited for helping form those little skeletons. Likewise, feeding worms to a baby bird whose diet should consist of mostly seed is not only detrimental to its growth, but often fatal. An animal that is fed the wrong diet will quite frankly starve to death because it is not getting the nutrients required for its species. Wildlife rehabilitators have the permits, education, and experience to provide the proper care for an animal that needs help.


Conversely, many times a baby animal is found, it is not in need of human assistance. Many times the animal is healthy, but the parents are away finding food or deterring predators. No person educated or otherwise can provide the equivalent care that a mother can. It is always best to try to reunite with the parents before attempting to bring that animal into a captive environment. If the animal is injured or the parents are known to be dead, that of course would invite human help. When capturing an animal in need of assistance, personal safety should always be the priority. Animal will bite, no matter how cute they appear. Once the animal is captured, it should be placed in a dark, quiet place until it can be transported to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator, which should happen as soon as possible. The animal should not receive any food or water! Depending on the animal and what circumstances led to the need for assistance, this can be dangerous. An animal whose body temperature has dropped below normal, for example, can die if given food or water to try to digest in addition to trying to bring its temperature back up. This simply places too much stress on the body and it will shut down. The animal must be taken to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible to legally receive the proper diet and medical care.

Why would the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, which has fish, care about local wildlife, you may ask. The Greater Cleveland Aquarium, as a conservation organization, takes an interest in this topic because it is a conservation and stewardship issue. GCA has some animals in its care that were rescues and required a permanent home. We strive to provide the best care for the animals for which we are responsible, and wish to see the same for any species. Remember to find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator if you come across an animal in need. Please do not attempt to raise the animal on your own. It is difficult, not to mention illegal, to do so.

World Water Day

Last week the Greater Cleveland Aquarium hosted Drink Local Drink Tap’s educational event, World Water Day for the fourth year. Since 2010, Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. (DLDT) has led educational, youth focused events on the United Nation’s International World Water Day (WWD) every March 22nd.

Last Wednesday, DLDT brought 300 Wavemaker Program students to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium for a day of exploration, water education and awards thanks to the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

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Students from Lake County Catholic, Citizens Leadership, Lakewood Catholic Academy and more explored the aquarium and visited interactive learning stations provided by Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District, Great Lake Erie Boat Float, and Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District.

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The day’s presentations, posters and activities focused on the importance of local water resources and the accessibility of safe drinking water around the world. One of the activities involved students decorating water jugs to carry around all day as a constant, visual reminder of the day’s theme.

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If you want to learn more about the work of Drink Local Drink Tap, World Water Day, or how to be more involved visit

Conserving Lake Erie and Our Great Lakes

For many of us who live in Northeast Ohio, Lake Erie is a place where we can visit and have fun. The scenic beaches, great fishing, boating and other recreational opportunities are all reasons people are living by such a great waterway.  Lake Erie and its counterparts; Huron, Michigan, Superior, and Ontario are important for many more reasons than being fun to visit. Formed 10,000 years ago as the glaciers retreated forming large depressions that filled with water, the great lakes took on their familiar formation that they are found today. These lakes provide critical habitat for thousands of native species, supply vast amounts of drinking water to millions of people and served as important connection route to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence River.

The Great Lakes impressively span over 94,000 square miles and hold about 6 quadrillion gallons of water!  That accounts for 20% of the world’s fresh water reserves and 90% of the U.S.’s drinking water supply1. The people of the United States aren’t the only ones who depend on the Great Lakes fresh water; Canada does too with about 35 million people from both countries living within the Great Lakes Basin. When combined, all five lakes make up 10,000 miles of shoreline2. This shoreline is made up of forested areas, urban centers, and wetlands.

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Great Lakes

There are many benefits to the Great Lakes for both people and wildlife. As a whole, the lakes bring in about $4.5 billion just with the sport fishing industry3.  Many fishermen enjoy catching walleye, lake trout, perch and other sport fish.  Recent studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) found that the revenue brought in from all economic activities such as boating, fishing, hunting and wildlife watching in the Great Lake States amounted to $50 billion5! The lakes and surrounding basin is home to 3,500 species of plants and animals, including more than 170 species of fish4. They also provide critical breeding and migrating areas for colonial and migratory birds.

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Now, lets recap the importance of our Great Lakes: large revenues for local economies brought in through the wildlife and recreation uses, home to thousands of natural species of plants and animals, thousands of miles of beautiful shorelines used both for natural and developmental purposes, and most importantly serve as 90% of the U.S. citizens drinking water.  With so many important factors built into the Great Lakes we must too consider the threats.

Many of us living within Northeast Ohio can joke about the time in 1969 that the Cuyahoga River caught fire because it was polluted from decades of dumping industrial waste, but this shouldn’t be a laughing matter. Today, while Ohio has cleaned up Lake Erie, there are still active threats to our waterways including; invasive species, pollution, and wetland destruction.

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Invasive species have already changed the ecology of our lakes.  Zebra mussels and the sea lamprey are now comfortably adapted to the lakes.  Zebra mussels can be found sticking to any hard surface-being docks, rocks and even boats.  They are such efficient filter feeders that while they do contribute to clearer water, they also make it harder for small fish to catch a meal.  The Sea lamprey has successfully out competed the native lake trout as the top predator in 4 out of 5 of the Great Lakes.  Only Lake Superior has a natural breeding population that can still out compete the sea lamprey.  The other four lakes have to be annually restocked with lake trout to keep their numbers viable2.  One invasive fish that has yet to make its way to the Great Lakes is the Asian Carp, a prolific feeder with no natural predators.  It will out compete many of the large carnivorous fish within our lakes if it is able to cross from the Mississippi waterway.

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Sea Lampray

Chemical contaminants are another important threat that cannot be ignored. Pollutants such as DDT and PCBs, while not as much as a threat as they were in the 70’s and 80’s are still contributors to much of the contaminants found in the lakes, built up as a result of over use of insecticides on our farms and improper disposal of coolant fluids.  Chemicals such as mercury can build up in fish as a result of the emissions from coal burning plants. Excessive use of nutrients and fertilizers on big farms leach into ground water and end up in the lakes causing harmful algal blooms that can make people sick1.

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Satellite photo of 2011 toxic algae bloom (shown in green)

Wetlands are important wildlife refuges that are becoming threatened from human and invasive animal impacts. Important wetland ecology is being disrupted through increased development from both home building and industrial use.  Even the introduction of our new invasive species can harm important food web ecology.  It may sound like the stuff of nightmares, but there is hope, and it comes from people like you!

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Many foundations including the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Sierra Club and many other Non-Profit organizations are here to help us keep our Great Lakes in good condition.  There are also important policies in place such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that help police big businesses from dumping pollutants and protecting our waterways.  The biggest difference though, can come from you!  Did you know that there are things you can do to make Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes great?  Even by supporting policies that create renewable energy or by using energy efficient products, you can help keep our water clean and wildlife safe6. Also, remember that you can be helpful just by conserving water: take shorter showers, don’t excessively water your lawn, and turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth. It may all sound like small contributions, but if everyone chips in, we will keep our Great Lakes in great condition for future generations.

Miscellaneous ways you can help our lakes7:

To Reduce Invasive Species:

*If you are an angler or a boater, power wash your boat and trailer before putting it into another body of water, or let it dry for at least five days.

*Drain your bait wells, bait buckets, and other equipment on land, not into the water.

*Never release live fish or aquatic plants into the wild, such as aquarium fish or species such as the Asian carp.

*Do not leave the bank or shore of any water with any live fish or live fish eggs, including leftover minnows.

To reduce polluted runoff:

*Use rain barrels to collect water.

*Don’t put yard waste in the roads.

*Reduce use of pesticides and fertilizers.

*Use non-toxic cleaning products in your home.

*Do not burn trash.

*Dispose of medications at proper facilities.




3 Aquatic nuisance species in the New York State Canal and Hudson River systems and the Great Lakes Basin: an economic and environmental assessment.” Environ Manage. 2005 May;35(5):692-702.


5 NOAA’s Great Lakes Region