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Dolphins spotted in Bronx River for the first time in years, highlighting cleanup efforts

Dolphins spotted swimming in the Bronx River this week
Dolphins spotted swimming in the Bronx River this week 00:28

The Bronx River was considered an "open sewer" for years, in large part because of the large amounts of industrial waste dumped in the New York City waterway in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dolphins were among the several species that the pollution had driven out — but last week, for the first time in years, they made a return. 

"It's true — dolphins were spotted in the Bronx River this week," the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation tweeted Thursday along with a video of at least two dolphins swimming in the water. "This is great news — it shows that the decades-long effort to restore the river as a healthy habitat is working."

The Bronx River Alliance said that the dolphins were spotted at Starlight Park, an area in the Bronx that has previously unused developed land and has since been restored with vegetation, picnic areas, playgrounds and more. According to the parks department, this is the first time dolphins have made their way up to the Bronx since 2017, although dolphins have been seen as recently as last year in the East River, which connects to the Bronx River. 

Two dolphins were also spotted in the Whale Creek Tributary last week next to Greenpoint, Brooklyn's Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. 

The parks department said the dolphins may have "naturally found" their way back to the waterway in the search of fish, which frequent the tributary. In 2018, the department released 400 adult alewife, a type of herring, into the river as part of its efforts to help improve the water ecology. In a video released then, the department explained that the river is the only one that is freshwater in New York City, and that the hope is that the newly released fish will use the area to lay eggs and that their offspring would do the same. 

"Dolphins wont swim up 'through' the river but will stay in the estuary, where freshwater and marine waters mix," the parks department told CBS News. "That is why a marine species like a dolphin would be expected to be in the estuary but we wouldn't expect them to swim up into the freshwater portions of the Bronx River, that gets progressively fresher (less salty) as you go upstream."

The river became highly polluted in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the American Museum of Natural History, when it was used for the disposal of industrial waste, including fertilizers and oil. That pollution resulted in the loss of many plants and animals. 

But groups have been working for decades to restore the waterway. The Bronx Zoo stopped discharging more than 200,000 gallons of animal waste into the river in 2001 and the New York Botanical Garden stopped discharging thousands of gallons of pollutants into the water in 2002, according to the Bronx River Alliance. 

The latest sighting is a "sign of a healthy ecosystem," according to the parks department. 

"The dolphins help provide ecological balance by preventing prey species from becoming over abundant," the department said, adding that they provide a "great social benefit" as well. 

"Seeing dolphins and knowing they live in your neighborhood park can inspire awe, wonder, curiosity and pride, helping to foster a deeper sense of stewardship for the local environment and spurring action to protect, care for and restore important local habitats such as the Bronx River."

Though not often seen in the Bronx River, marine mammals are frequent visitors to the waters around the Big Apple. From spring to autumn every year, bottlenose dolphins visit local waterways to feed. 

As marine animals make their presence known in the area, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation recently warned that people should avoid coming into close contact. The Marine Mammal Protect Act requires that people avoid touching, feeding, disturbing or harassing marine mammals, and says that those who do so are subject to fines and jail time. 

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