19 Sep 2023 4 min read

Celebrating the cycle of life

By Lewis Pugh

Having completed his epic Hudson River swim, Lewis Pugh reflects on both the resilience and fragility of our natural world.


Have you ever heard of Albany beef? If you have, you’ll already know that it doesn’t come from a cow. It’s an old-fashioned name for a fish – the very rare and endangered Atlantic sturgeon.

These enormous fish from the Hudson River were once such a common source of protein that they were given this beefy nickname in the New York state capital.

And then, like so many of the things we love to death, the sturgeon was exploited to the brink of extinction.

Saving a species

This seems particularly tragic for a species known as a ‘living fossil’, because it survived virtually unchanged for millions of years.1

Towards the end of the last century, in a bid to save Atlantic sturgeon, restrictions were put in place on catching them. Even so, their recovery has been slow, and I didn’t expect to see any adult Atlantic sturgeon as I entered the final phase of my swim, from the source of the Hudson River towards its end in Manhattan.

Perhaps this was just as well, since I had to put in regular night swims through the tidal section of the swim, and an encounter in the dark with a 4 metre (14 foot) giant weighing over 90 kilos (200 pounds)2 would have been alarming!


I like to think of myself as a saltwater creature, but during this river swim I’ve become acclimatised to fresh water. Sturgeon are the same. They are known as ‘anadromous’, because they are born in fresh water, but spend most of their lives in the ocean.

Each spring, when they reach breeding age, the sturgeon swim up the river to the estuary waters in the Hudson valley, to spawn in the very few rocky outcrops that serve as their nurseries. Between two and six years later, in the waning days of summer, these juvenile fish make their journey back to the ocean to begin the cycle again.

Exhausted as I was after 200 miles of swimming, it made my heart swell to imagine that I was being accompanied by young sturgeon on the brink of beginning their ocean lives.

Biodiversity in the balance

The sturgeon story is a wonderful example of both the resilience and fragility of our natural world. Wildlife populations in freshwater ecosystems around the world are suffering losses greater than those observed in any other habitat. In my lifetime, monitored freshwater populations have fallen by an average of 83% – the largest decline of any species group.3

Which is why, in March this year, UNEP launched its Freshwater Challenge. It is the largest ever initiative to restore degraded rivers, lakes and wetlands, which are central to tackling the world’s worsening water, climate and nature crises. 

The Freshwater Challenge aims to restore 300,000 kilometres of rivers and 350 million hectares of wetlands – an area larger than India – by 2030.4 Over the past month I have become acutely aware of how critical this issue is.

A river for all rivers

When I began my swim, I declared the Hudson to be a river that represents all rivers. Not only because it ends in New York City, where the United Nations headquarters sits, but because I felt it told an inspiring story of how a river can be abused and mistreated, then nursed back to health.

Over these past weeks I’ve come to know this river’s story, both directly from my experience in the water, and through the people who live alongside it and care for it so passionately.

The river started off pristine, the way all rivers were born to be. It became progressively more polluted as human activity and industry left their traces in the water. Some of these traces, like the indestructible PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) released into the river decades ago, will be there forever.

But other contaminants are being addressed, through awareness, river clean-ups and legislation that stops industrial effluent from being released into the water. There are drives to find solutions for the CSO (combine sewer overflow) systems that release raw sewage into the river after heavy rains, such as the ones we had in the final week of my swim.

Living systems

All of these efforts to clean up the Hudson are inching it closer to the goal of it being swimmable, fishable and drinkable. There is still much work to be done, but it is my hope that the stories of these efforts, along with those of river warriors and guardians around the world, will inspire more people to make a significant difference to their own waterways.

Our world’s rivers need to be cared for. More than anything else, during this swim I’ve experienced how a river is a living system. It makes no sense to protect one part of it while polluting another. From catchments to estuaries, from source to sea, rivers need to be restored and protected along their entire length to make them more resilient for all the creatures – human, plant and animal – that live in and alongside them.

Everything is connected, and protecting rivers protects all of us.



1. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/atlantic-sturgeon-washes-up-on-east-coast-beach-rare-prehistoric-and-endangered-assateague-island/ 

2. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/atlantic-sturgeon-washes-up-on-east-coast-beach-rare-prehistoric-and-endangered-assateague-island/ 

3. [https://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?6574941/WWFs-Living-Planet-Report-reveals-a-devastating-69-drop-in-wildlife-populations-on-average-in-less-than-a-lifetime]  

4. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/largest-river-and-wetland-restoration-initiative-history-launched-un#:~:text=Yet%20one%2Dthird%20of%20the,security%2C%20pushed%20to%20the%20brink 

Lewis Pugh

Endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans

Lewis Pugh swims in the most vulnerable ecosystems on Earth to call for their protection. He was the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world. He was also the first to swim across the North Pole and the first to swim the full length of the English Channel. Lewis has been instrumental in protecting over two million km² of vulnerable ocean – an area larger than Western Europe. At LGIM, we are united with Lewis in our aim to tackle the climate crisis. We believe inaction is not an option and are proud to support Lewis’ efforts to raise awareness and push for positive change.

Lewis Pugh