The Cuyahoga River is famous for a few reasons. It runs through the middle of Cleveland, Ohio. It’s the inspiration behind a song by REM, and a beer by Great Lakes Brewery. And at one point it was one of the most polluted rivers in America. In fact the pollution was so bad that the river actually caught on fire, 13 different times.
The pollution afflicting the Cuyahoga river was an environmental tragedy; but served as a catalyst in the conservation movement that led to the creation of the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency that redefined the Nation’s relationship with Nature.
Today the Cuyahoga flows rather than oozes. And it stands as one of the great American comeback stories. Bald Eagles are building nests each year, Sycamore’s grow along the banks, and locals can hike the shores and paddle the ripples. But despite the incredible progress the Cuyahoga has made there’s still room to improve; and one man is leading the charge.
Angling to Activist
Eddie Olschansky is an Ohio native well acquainted with the lure and lore of the Cuyahoga River. As a Cleveland native he grew up fishing Lake Eerie and pond skipping around the national park. It wasn’t until 2015 though that he switched from banking hours to boating hours with the acquisition of a second-hand sit-inside kayak.
Like most new paddlers he quickly fell in love with kayaking and time for on the water adventures became a constant priority. Over the course of his first few outings fisherman’s luck got the better of him; but he did not return empty handed. Instead he grabbed some of the trash that he found scattered around pylons and sand bars. Little did he know that cleaning up the river would soon morph from part-time conservation into a long term restoration.
Trash Fish Cleaning Up
Fishermen are familiar with trash fish. They’re the rogue species that steal your bait and clog your line. You won’t find trash fish on any restaurant menus, and they’re generally regarded with disdain. But these throwback species play an incredibly important role in maritime ecosystems. They’re prey for sports fish higher up on the food chain and can serve as critical protein sources in less affluent communities.
After his first few trips reeling in rubbish Eddie decided to formalize his clean-up and adopted the name Trash Fish Cleveland. Just like throw away-species his efforts were critical to the health of the Cuyahoga ecosystem and served the community at large.
Since his maiden voyage six years ago Eddie has dedicated his life to the Trash Fish and the mission of cleaning up the Cuyahoga. Without fail he’s been out on the water between 4 and 7 times a week all year long, rain, snow, or shine. Armed with a grabber, some rope, and bags he’s hauled out beer cans, sex toys, and even towed back industrial sized tires. He used to weigh his catch and in the first year brought in over 10,000 lbs., All by himself. Over the last 6 years Eddie and Trash Fish volunteers have removed an estimated 100,000 lbs, or over 50 tons, of debris.
Making a Difference
It did not take long for other paddlers to take notice of Eddie’s efforts. Over the years Trash Fish membership has exploded. It’s not uncommon to see between 5 and 10 kayakers armed with trash bags and grabbers patrolling the river each day. In 2021 over 400 volunteers have joined Eddie to help clean up and there’s no sign of growth slowing down.
While volunteer numbers are swelling unfortunately so too is the amount of plastic debris flowing into the river. By far the most common debris pulled out of the river are single use plastics such as water bottles, food containers, and bags. A far more egregious offense is the abundance of zero-use plastics; raw materials that haven’t had the chance to be molded into something useful. Plastic pellets, also known as “Nurdles” in industry, are commonly lost during transit and transfer processes.
How to Help
If you’ve spent any amount of time out on the water, any body of water, you’ve undoubtedly seen fishing line tangled in branches or beer bottles crashed near the shore. It’s saddening and disheartening to see so the after-effects of poor choices and environmental neglect, but it’s also an easy problem to address. We’re not asking that you give up fishing. But try to grab one piece of trash each time you go out and bring it back to shore.
For all you landlubber’s there’s one simple action you can take that will have a profound impact. Stop using single use plastic. Buy a water bottle. Use Tupperware. Avoid purchasing single-use items as much as possible. These products are rarely recycled and more often than not end up in the ocean.
Get Involved with Trash Fish
Eddie’s efforts have grown exponentially and the future of Trash Fish is just beginning. If you’re in the Cleveland area, or interested in joining the Trash Fish network, there are a few easy ways to help. First – talk to Eddie. His experience with organizing community cleanups and coordinating with municipalities is critical for making a big difference quickly. Trash Fish is always happy to accept new volunteers.
If you’re a little farther away but still want to contribute then consider donating an old kayak to the Trash Fish fleet. You can also consider grabbing a 100% plastic free Trash Fish shirt, or simply donating whatever you can afford to support their mission. Lastly be sure to check out the Trash Fish Instagram to stay up to date on upcoming events and the latest “catch”.