Blogs > Ecology > On Newtown Creek: Creating havens for marine life on a sheet-pile shoreline

On Newtown Creek: Creating havens for marine life on a sheet-pile shoreline


Photo: Newtown Creek Alliance
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Riverkeeper is teaming up with Newtown Creek Alliance, Billion Oyster Project and design firm SITU on an experiment: Installing oyster-shell structures on industrial bulkheads, with the hope of fostering habitat for native creatures.

In the industrial waterway between Brooklyn and Queens, miles of sheet pile make life difficult for the creatures that still consider it a salt marsh. Ribbed mussels seem determined to cling to whatever they can along the water line, grabbing onto wooden beams and rocky concrete, and bringing their much-needed water filtering skills to the neighborhood. But the available real estate is limited.

Riverkeeper and our partners just launched an experiment aiming to create more havens for life here on Newtown Creek, even in the harshest areas of shoreline. The hope is that a set of new oyster-shell creature condos, hanging from the bulkheads – though small in scale – could help restore some continuity to a fragmented habitat and help marine life rebound, while efforts to address centuries’ worth of oil and sewage contamination continue.

Read about more projects like these in the Newtown Creek Vision plan.

In October, volunteers from Riverkeeper, Newtown Creek Alliance, Billion Oyster Project and design firm SITU met at the New York Harbor School on Governors Island and created a couple dozen structures, about a foot in length, using just cardboard, concrete and oyster shells. The shells came from Billion Oyster Project, which collects them from restaurants and businesses around the city. A local food truck helped out by contributing some recycled vegetable oil, used in the assembly process. 

Newtown Creek Bulkhead Adaptation Project

Earlier this month, students from the Billion Oyster Project organized the transportation of these structures to the creek. We clipped the first few onto a stretch of corrugated sheet pile on Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek. Then we waited for nature to move in.

“After we installed the habitats, little grass shrimp were swimming by and actually checking them out!” said Chrissy Remein, NYC Water Quality Project Coordinator. “They were landing on it and peeking around. It was pretty amazing. And grass shrimp are pretty cute.”

Our goal that day was to test the best ways to suspend the structures. Once we see how these perform, we’ll decide the best method for installing the rest of the habitats.

This effort is just one of the strategies listed in the Newtown Creek Vision plan to improve shoreline habitat. (See in particular the section on “Better Shorelines,” Pages 136-137. Or click here for an executive summary.)

Photo: Newtown Creek Alliance

To learn about grass shrimp, ribbed mussels and other inhabitants of the creek, check out the Newtown Creek Alliance Marine Wildlife poster.

Ribbed mussels were once so profuse that there was a mass of them called Mussel Island – destroyed for navigation purposes around 1920. By then the creek’s last remaining marshes, found only at the end of Dutch Kills, were filled in and the last natural shoreline was converted into a bulkhead.

Pockets of ribbed mussels continue to colonize the shorelines of the creek and its tributaries, favoring rocky concrete surfaces, along with wood in areas that are exposed at low tide and submerged at high tide. They help remove bacteria and improve water quality.

Newtown Creek Alliance documented their presence in pockets throughout the entire 3.8-mile waterway in 2016. They’ve hung on despite oil seeping into the creek in the nation’s largest underground oil spill and the cleanup efforts under way.

The Newtown Creek Bulkhead Adaptation Project is supported by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.


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