How Did the River Thames Recover from Being “Biologically Dead”?

In what amounts to a miracle of man and nature working together, London's River Thames is no longer the gray mass of lifeless water that the Natural History Museum described as "biologically dead" almost 65 years ago.

The River Thames was declared "biologically dead” in 1957, but is now clean enough to support various species of fish and seals, and even the occasional porpoise.
The River Thames was declared "biologically dead” in 1957, but is now clean enough to support various species of fish and seals, and even the occasional porpoise.

Decades of new environmental regulations, improved sewer systems, and an increased dedication to keeping waste out of the river have turned it into a bastion of life, with everything from seals and dolphins to hundreds of fish species thriving in the Thames.

It's an astonishing change since the late 1950s, when no life could be found in the Thames and the Manchester Guardian newspaper called it a "badly managed open sewer." Still, the river isn't completely recovered, as new threats have arisen -- in particular, plastic waste. A 2015 study found that nearly 70 percent of the flounder in the river had plastic inside of them. Fortunately, unlike years ago, when some politicians said there was nothing to be done for the Thames, a concerted effort to remove and prevent plastic from ending up in the river is underway.

A trip on the Thames:

  • The River Thames supplies two-thirds of the drinking water in London.

  • There has been at least one bridge over the River Thames for nearly 2,000 years, since the days of the Romans. It is now spanned by over 200 bridges.

  • Lewis Pugh was the first person to swim the length of the Thames -- 202 miles (325 km) -- which he accomplished in 2006.

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    • The River Thames was declared "biologically dead” in 1957, but is now clean enough to support various species of fish and seals, and even the occasional porpoise.
      The River Thames was declared "biologically dead” in 1957, but is now clean enough to support various species of fish and seals, and even the occasional porpoise.