The Environmental Contaminants Program

By Schexnider, Cindy | Endangered Species Bulletin, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Environmental Contaminants Program


Schexnider, Cindy, Endangered Species Bulletin


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The Fish and Wildlife Service has been studying the effects of contaminants on fish and wildlife since the agency's earliest days, but the Environmental Contaminants Program did not began to take form until the 1950s, when increasing awareness of pollution problems spurred the American public to demand action. Then, in 1962, Rachel Carson, a former Service employee, captured national attention with her landmark book, Silent Spring, which described the widespread harmful effects of pesticides on the environment. Carson's alarming message--that the effects of these substances on wildlife serve as indicators of what may ultimately jeopardize our own health--struck a chord with the American public.

Many believe that Carson's book inspired the modern environmental movement and prompted the development of many of the pollution prevention laws that are in place today. After her book was published, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act and pollution prevention laws such as the Clean Water Act; Clean Air Act; Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act; Safe Drinking Water Act; Toxic Substances Control Act; and the "Superfund" toxic waste cleanup law also known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

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Today, the Service's Environmental Contaminants Program includes contaminants specialists stationed at more than 75 locations around the country. These scientists are on the front lines in the fight against pollution. They specialize in detecting toxic chemicals; addressing their effects; preventing harm to fish, wildlife, and their habitats; and removing toxic chemicals and restoring habitat when prevention is not possible. They are experts on oil and chemical spills, pesticides, water quality, hazardous materials disposal, and other aspects of pollution biology. Integrated into all other Service activities, the Service's contaminants specialists often work in partnership with other agencies and organizations that rely on our expertise.

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An example of the program's work can be seen in our response to an oil spill off the U.S. Pacific Northwest coast that posed a serious threat to a population of marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus). These small seabirds live in nearshore marine environments from California to Alaska and are the only seabird to nest in mature coastal forests. Extensive losses of such habitat led to a decline in marbled murrelet numbers along the West Coast, resulting in the 1992 listing of the Washington, Oregon, and California population as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

On July 22, 1991, the Chinese freighter Tuo Hai hit and sank the Japanese fishing vessel Tenyo Maru near the entrance to the Straits of Juan de Fuca, which separates Washington State and Vancouver Island, Canada.

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