From Catastrophe to Recovery: Stories of Fishery Management Success

Recovery of a Great River Fishery: The Story of the Ohio River

Jeff A. Thomas, Jerry G. Schulte, Peter A. Tennant, and D. Ryan Argo


Abstract.—Great river systems (>5,180 km2 drainage area or >3,000 m2 average annual discharge), due to their sheer size, wide variety of uses, and cross-jurisdictional watersheds, represent unique challenges for fishery managers. Multi-agency collaborations involving direct and consistent communication of all stakeholders, including government and nongovernment organizations, are essential for the successful natural resources management of these systems. Recovery of the severely degraded fishery of the Ohio River is an excellent illustration of the power of direct engagement of large numbers of stakeholders. The river and its tributaries were in such poor condition immediately after the industrial revolution that by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the main stem had effectively become an industrial and municipal sewer rather than the beautiful stream it had once been. Important steps in the recovery of the system involved the creation of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission in 1948 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Collaborations between these two entities and many other partners, including state natural resource and water quality agencies, other federal agencies, industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations, coupled with the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972, have been responsible for improving the Ohio River from its lowest point in the 1930s to the thriving resource that it is today, sustaining upwards of 160 fish species. Threats still exist to the aquatic communities of the basin, and recent data sets show reasons that more work remains to be done to maintain this valuable resource.