Development Company Creates Artificial Marine Ecosystem With 'Reef Balls'


Ever since the Dutch settled on the banks of the Hudson, New York City residents have gradually wrought devastation on the area’s marine ecosystem. Yet it soon may be one of just a few urban centers in the world boasting a “reef.”

In the wake of development work the New York City Economic Development Corporation is conducting on the West Harlem waterfront, the company has sought the assistance of HDR, an environmental consulting firm, which suggested the installation of artificial reef balls just off the emerging Waterfront Park developing on St. Clair Place between 125th and 135th Streets.

EDC had to step up its environmental efforts in order to obtain permission for its proposed development.

According to the HDR Web site, “While human users would be able to walk or bike along new waterfront pathways and fish from a recreational pier, the underwater inhabitants in the harbor would be able to maneuver around in a more natural environment created by a reef ball field.”

Reef Ball technology has been used widely around the world as a means of restoring ecosystems. The structures consist of rough-textured, pH-balanced concrete with holes of varying sizes. They create habitat complexity as water circulates through the structure and promotes settling of marine organisms such as corals, algae, coralline algae, and sponges.

According to HDR Project Manager Sarah Zappala, Reef Balls must be site-specific, and can only be installed after a careful analysis of the sediment type and hydrodynamics of an area.

HDR installed reef balls in the area in June 2006, according to Zappala. The company states that it coordinated the “first use of Reef Ball technology in New York Harbor.”

The Reef Ball field consists of 50 Reef Balls, each of which are three feet high, four feet wide, and spaced 40 feet apart.

HDR has monitored the area and its characteristics for the past year and a half, taking freshwater samples from the reef area back to the lab in order to assess the potential effects of the Reef Ball field on the ecosystem.

Today, Zappala calls the project a “success.”

HDR representatives brought the project to the attention of the Harlem community at a Community Board 9 meeting this March, and according to CB9 Chair Pat Jones, the initiative was “well received.”

The technology has been so effective that city authorities are considering installing Reef Balls at several other locations along the waterfront.

One concern arising from this type of artificial ecosystem is that New York residents who go fishing might consume dangerous transient fish that have swum down from toxic waste areas upstream.

But Zappala contended that the fish in the artificial ecosystem are the same ones that populated the waters before the Reef Balls were installed.

“It’s people’s responsibility to check specific state park service regulations on which fish to consume,” Zappala said. Moreover, the development of the park will likely discourage fishing in the area.

The success of the Reef Ball project in West Harlem will likely draw the attention of local authorities and potentially provide a way to salvage New York’s marine ecosystem.

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