Gilbert and Sarah Kerlin Lecture on Environmental Law; Power of Possibility: Birth of a Movement, Rebirth of Our Waterways

Blog post by Matthew Schneider, PELR Junior Associate

This year, the Kerlin Lecture on Environmental Law was given by Marc Yaggi, entitled Power of Possibility: Birth of a Movement, Rebirth of Our Waterways, about the power of citizen action and how it can/has been used to clean up waterways all around the world. Marc is currently the Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance, the largest and fastest growing nonprofit solely focused on the goal of cleansing polluted waterways. He has worked toward this goal throughout his entire professional career and has been instrumental in expanding the Waterkeeper movement around the world for over twenty years. Before joining Waterkeeper Alliance, Marc was a Senior Attorney and Watershed Program Director for Riverkeeper, Inc. where he worked to protect the 2,000-square mile watershed that serves New York City’s drinking water supply. His passion and dedication stem from his own childhood experiences growing up on the Susquehanna River in Northeast Pennsylvania. His lifelong love of water started on that river, and drove him to pursue a degree at Pace Law School where he knew he could make a difference.

To illustrate the problems Waterkeeper deals with, Marc started off the lecture by talking about the former oyster capital of the world, New York City. Dating back until the 1600’s and up until the early 1900’s, New York City was known as the oyster capital of the world due to the abundance of oysters located in its bay. Oyster carts were popular throughout the city, and street names were even named to reflect the oyster’s prominence. However, the oysters were over harvested and poisoned by the increasing amounts of waste being discharged into the harbor. Finally in the 1920’s, after people started to get sick from eating the oysters, the oyster capital of the world was shut down. Too often, excessive pollution of a waterway has led them to be considered detrimental to human life. This scenario is a good illustration of the problem Waterkeepers are often forced to confront. The use of citizen action has been shown to be one effective way of combating waterway pollution. However, this is not the end of the story, as Marc later explains how citizen action is being used to restore the oyster population which would allow New York City to regain is moniker of oyster capital of the world.

Marc then started his discussion on the origins of the Waterkeeper movement and explained that the Waterkeeper Alliance has its roots in the Hudson River Valley. The Hudson River had a rich history of both commercial and recreational fishing, but pollution became so rampant that during the 1960’s the river was considered nearly dead. Local fisherman, being the ones most effected, united to save their river and formed the Hudson River Fisherman’s Association. They decided that instead of getting back at the polluters by breaking the law, they would enforce it against them. These fishermen recognized that outspoken, citizen-led advocacy was the only way to ensure that laws were enforced and their river, livelihood and the health of their families were protected. The 1970’s provided a huge environmental movement and led to the passing of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972. The citizen provision of the CWA proved to be especially important to the Waterkeeper movement, and allowed ordinary citizens to enforce the law if the government turned a blind eye. In 1983 Hudson Riverkeeper was founded to patrol the river, to restore its abundant fisheries, and to lead citizen-based enforcement of environmental laws. The Hudson River now stands as an icon for ecosystem revitalization and a beacon of hope that people can bring life back into their rivers.

This model of citizen action has led to the formation of hundreds of like organizations around the world. Waterkeeper Alliance is the hub that connects these grass-roots movements together and provides support towards their vision for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water worldwide. When it was founded in 1999, Waterkeeper Alliance only had 34 members. Since that time, the organization has grown significantly and now boasts 302 members from six different continents.

Marc went on to discuss his experience in 2005, when he traveled to a village of 40,000 people in Senegal to meet with a local soccer club to discuss the possibility of starting a waterkeeper organization for Han Bay. Marc himself said it was the most polluted source of water he had ever seen, and in fact for years local villagers could not swim or fish in it and were forced to travel out into the open ocean to make their catch. Beke, the leader of the soccer club, explained that Waterkeeper Alliance was what they needed to clean up Han Bay, due to their international brand and effective methods. Convinced, Marc and the Waterkeeper Alliance approved their application for membership and in 2014 a 68 million dollar investment was made to clean up Han Bay. Furthermore, the successful movement inspired a growing network of advocates in West Africa, and goes to show the value and power of citizen action used effectively.

The lecture comes full circle when Marc returned to his introductory story about the former oyster capital of the world, New York City. He explained, that The New York Harbor School, a high school located in the middle of New York Harbor, is working on restoring the oyster population and returning New York City to its former status as oyster capital of the world. The projects goal is a billion oysters by the year 2030. The reintroduction of oysters, who are natural filter feeders, will help clean up the harbor more and more as their numbers grow. The New York Harbor, much like the Hudson River during the 1960’s and Han Bay, was considered nearly dead. Citizen action has allowed these waterways to regain some of their former life sustaining capabilities, but there is still more work to be done. Marc concludes with a quote from President Barrack Obama, from a recent commencement address at Rutgers University, he said: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” (quote originally credited to Martin Luther King, Jr.), and then added, “but it requires citizen action”.




The Kerlin Lecture: Marc Yaggi: Birth of a Movement, Rebirth of Our Waterways.

Waterkeeper Alliance website (



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