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
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
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
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
“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.