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Our oceans, Great Lakes and communities are healthier and more vibrant thanks to the hard work of everyday environmental advocates, including our Shedd supporters and those within the Surge community.

Progress began decades ago when people saw their lakes and rivers become increasingly polluted or witnessed beloved aquatic animals come close to extinction, from the bald eagle to freshwater fish. Communities began to see the impacts of industrial pollution on their neighbors and children as asthma and cancer rates grew.

In the face of this environmental damage — inspired by new public education and marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” — people joined together to build the modern-day conservation movement.

As a result, Congress signed four of the most monumental and impactful environmental laws in history 50 years ago in 1972: the Coastal Zone Management Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Clean Water Act.

The United States Capitol on a sunny day with a pink flowery tree in the foreground

Photo by: © BeeCoolPhoto / Getty Images

Each of these laws, and the tireless work by advocates, has led to increased protection for wildlife and their habitats, less pollution in our air and water, healthier lives for our neighbors and is the foundation on which we are building a vibrant blue planet.

Today, we are continuing to build on that movement. Just this year we have secured historic victories, including the passage of the largest climate legislation in U.S. history — the Inflation Reduction Act. As we commemorate the victories of the past, it is critically important to understand how they are connected to our future-focused conservation work today.

Help us celebrate each piece of legislation as we highlight one law at a time and how you can take action to ensure its positive impacts for our blue planet last for another 50 years!

Coastal Zone Management Act

Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act in response to the degradation of our coasts from industrialization and the removal of critical, protective coastal ecosystems from sea grasses and salt marshes to deeply-rooted dune grasses and wetlands. When we support nature-based solutions, we have vibrant and healthy coastlines for animals like sea otters and plovers to thrive.

The Coastal Zone Management Act, administered by NOAA, creates a unique, voluntary partnership between the federal government and, currently, 34 coastal and Great Lakes states and territories. This important program works to, “preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance the resources of the nation’s coastal zone.” We can see the results of this investment with revitalized coastlines and increasingly healthier habitat for aquatic life.

Rocks along the south shoreline of Lake Michigan north of the city
Where the water meets the rocky shore of a beach in Toronto, sea gulls and a swan preen and stand around in the bright afternoon sunlight. In the background, a green park, studded with trees, is visible.

What can I do to help?

Surge member efforts have made an impact this year by helping us to secure more than $2.6 billion dollars to enhance the work at our coasts to build resilience in the face of the growing impacts of climate change. Together we can keep up this momentum and do even more.

Anyone living near water, including here in Chicago, has reaped the benefits of the Coastal Zone Management Act. Want to give back but not sure where to start? Be a good steward of your own backyard by joining a Shedd Aquarium Action Day. You’ll get out in the field with a Shedd expert to clean beaches along Lake Michigan or the banks of the Chicago River. You’ll help eradicate invasive plant species like buckthorn in neighboring forest preserves to keep wetland ecosystems thriving. You’ll be a part of a growing community of Chicagoland residents taking action to protect our precious coasts.

Want to level up your action? Join us in thanking Congress for the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and reminding them we have more work to do! We encourage you to urge Congress to increase investments in NOAA with nature-based solutions and prioritize justice.

Marine Mammal Protection Act

Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in response to growing concerns that species and populations of marine mammals had been reduced or brought to near extinction as a result of human activities. This act was the first piece of legislation to call specifically for an ecosystem-level approach to wildlife protection, establishing protections for marine mammals, which has enabled many vulnerable populations to recover from the brink of extinction.

According to NOAA Fisheries, since it was enacted, no marine mammal species have gone extinct in U.S. waters. Its protections have stopped the decline of many marine mammal populations and have led to the recovery of several like humpback whales, gray whales, gray seals and California sea lions.

Two sea otters float in the water on their backs
Two belugas swim away from the photographer, pushing their tail flukes powerfully through the water.

What can I do to help?

We are working with our colleagues at New England Aquarium and the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) to save right whales. There are 340 North Atlantic right whales remaining. Now is the time to raise your voice and increase our work to protect our blue planet’s extraordinary marine mammals.

Want to level up your action? Contact Congress to urge increased resources to support enforcement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that can make a difference for marine mammals. Or, a donation to Shedd contributes to research, rescue and rehabilitation efforts to benefit vulnerable marine mammal populations.

For example, a member of our animal care team recently traveled to Alaska to participate in Belugas Count!, lending her expertise to spot and count the critically endangered population of Cook Inlet beluga whales. Shedd's Animal Response team is also ready to help when rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals is necessary.

Shedd Animal Care Team Member Claudia at Belugas Count! in Alaska

National Marine Sanctuaries Act

You may have visited a national marine sanctuary and never knew it! There are 15 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments from Washington state to the Florida Keys and from Lake Huron to American Samoa, creating a network of more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters.

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to designate and protect areas of the ocean as national marine sanctuaries for their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational or aesthetic qualities. The primary goal is to protect precious marine resources in those locations such as coral reefs, sunken historical vessels or unique habitats.

Shedd is proud to have helped secure the designation of the newest marine sanctuary, the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which is the only sanctuary in Lake Michigan. We are also working to support an update to protections within the newly announced Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Restoration Blueprint.

Additionally, Shedd researchers, two teams of citizen scientists, students and collaborators traveled to Dry Tortugas National Park this year — which lies within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — to survey for threatened queen conch and long-spined sea urchins that are under threat of a lethal disease. This work was critical to learn more about each species to better inform their protection.

A lighthouse sits on a shore with blue sky and clouds around it
Rainbow trout have a long, stocky bodies and can grow to lengths of 6 to 16 inches.

What can I do to help?

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation recently released the results of a first-of-its-kind national survey that found that Americans strongly support protections of the oceans and Great Lakes. Over 8 in 10 Americans think that the ocean’s role in sustaining marine life is extremely or very important.

The Ocean Climate Survey data is clear: most Americans believe we must do more to protect the ocean and prevent polluting our waterways. We urge you to work together to protect critical habitats by increasing investments in National Marine Sanctuaries. This work is part of the global movement to protect at least 30% of land and oceans by 2030. Together we can make a lasting impact. We encourage you to amplify the results of the Ocean Climate Survey on social media.

Clean Water Act

The impacts of rapid and unregulated industrialization had a devastating effect on access to clean and safe water. On June 22, 1969, an oil slick caught fire on the Cuyahoga River just southeast of downtown Cleveland, Ohio. The image of that fire, the day "the river caught fire" was a catalyst to the modern environment movement, especially here in the Great Lakes region.

With the establishment of the Clean Water Act in 1972, it provided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the tools to prevent pollution. When pollution does occur, the Clean Water Act provides EPA the resources to hold industry responsible for the harm it causes when it discharges pollutants into our waterways.

The passage of this legislation came just in time for the Chicago River. In the early 1970s, only five species of the hardiest fish were able to survive in the river due to the poor water quality. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, billions of pounds of pollutants have been kept out of rivers across the country with direct benefits for drinking water, public health, recreation and wildlife.

Now more than 70 species of fish have been identified in the Chicago River. Shedd, along with our partner organizations like Friends of the Chicago River, Urban Rivers and others, are working to research, conserve and restore the Chicago River and surrounding waterways.

A young woman in a kayak grins as she compares a small fish in a scoop container to an illustration.
A view of the Chicago River, looking toward the Cermak Road Bridge with the city skyline in the background.

What can I do to help?

Check out our blog about the Chicago wastewater system to learn some practical actions you can take in your daily life to help keep waterways clean.

Want to level up your support? Contact Congress and urge for a strong EPA, empowered to protect our waterways for generations to come, with secure Water of the United States (WOTUS) and substantial funding for EPA enforcement. Now is the time to tell EPA to continue to protect our waters.