April 21, 2014

History of Soundkeeper

1987 was a pivotal year for Long Island Sound.  That year, an especially severe algal bloom caused the lowest dissolved oxygen levels ever to be recorded in the western Sound: Zero.  Never seen phenomena, such as lobsters actually crawling out of the water and fish at the surface desperately gulping air, began to be reported to newspapers and scientists.

A rotten-egg smell from the hydrogen sulfide that seeped up from bottom sediments killed off any survivors. Millions of dead fish clogged the harbors and beaches in the western Sound.  The water had become toxic.

But long before the general public or politicians noticed the declining condition of the Long Island Sound, fishermen in the western Sound banded together as the Connecticut Coastal Fishermen’s Association to fight back against polluters.

Driven to action by harbors full of dead and dying fish, shellfish and beach closures and waters almost devoid of oxygen, Terry Backer and Chris Staplefelt, local lobster and oyster fishermen — with the help of then Hudson Riverkeeper John Cronin and Riverkeeper Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. -  decided to save their way of life and their connection to the environment with every legal means at their disposal.

Under Terry’s leadership, the group took a number of municipalities to court for tens of thousands of Clean Water Act violations. First among towns and cities that entered into settlement agreements with the fisherman was the City of Norwalk.

The suit resulted in an agreement approved and enforceable by the court. The settlement set benchmarks for improvements at the sewage plant and an $87,000 payment to the Connecticut Coastal Fishermen’s Association. Half of money was set aside for the preservation of Norwalk harbor the other half used to start a professional full time protector of the Sound – a Soundkeeper.

The late 1980′s was a time when the symptoms of a very sick Long Island Sound could no longer be ignored, and washed-up medical waste, including body parts, syringes and bandages grabbed headlines across the country. More and more, reporters began to clamor for choice quotes from Terry, the newly named Soundkeeper.

In stacks of newspaper clippings from the era, Terry offers his succinct, common sense insights on the Sound, gained from a lifetime on the water, and a family fishing history going back three generations. What Terry presented was a sharp contrast to the dry pronouncements of state and local officials, rich in bureaucratic jargon.

Terry Backer took the lead as the first Soundkeeper and continues to this day bringing Soundkeeper’s special brand of advocacy to protecting the waters. As a result of the early collaboration between Riverkeeper John Cronin and Soundkeeper Terry Backer, the Waterkeeper Alliance came into being. Today, the Waterkeeper Alliance, with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as President and Terry Backer as Vice President, boasts 156 Waterkeeper organizations on six continents fighting for the most precious resource on the planet: Water.

Though he was called everything from ambulance chaser to egomaniac, Terry’s vision of the role of Soundkeeper was founded on something deeper than economic viability of the shell fishing industry. In the October 1989 issue of Connecticut Environment, Terry was asked how he saw his responsibility as the Soundkeeper:

“…Each generation bears some responsibility for where we are now. In the beginning they did it out of ignorance, today we behave out of arrogance. Nature tolerates neither ignorance nor arrogance. It will shake us off its back like fleas from a dog.  I think about that, and also my children. There is a moral issue here. We borrow our environment from our children.  For me this is a spiritual sense of obligation – to be a good spirit of the planet.”