Build it and they will come

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Something odd is happening in Delaware. Although, the fact that anything happens in Delaware strikes some folks as odd. At mid-day, in plain view, a barge chugs out into Delaware Bay and dumps a load of aging New York City subway cars into the ocean. According to state marine officials, this waste disposal operation has transformed an underwater desert into a marine oasis.

More than 650 aging New York subway cars are now strewn across the ocean floor off the Delaware shore, where they provide underwater housing of outstanding quality. Word of the luxury condos spread quickly; blue sponges and mussels staked out their turf on the walls of the subway cars, flounder snuggled into the silt that settles on the roofs, and sea bass set up housekeeping inside the cars. The landscaping features native plants, giving the artificial reef a more natural appearance. Sea grass grows in and around the subway cars, carpeting the ocean floor and gently swaying in the currents.

Unfortunately, the upscale residents who have settled at Red Bird Reef have become targets for some unsavory types. Open-ocean fish such as tuna and mackerel are known to sweep through the area, gobbling up some of the residents. And more unpleasantness has erupted on the ocean surface. Commercial fishermen have descended on the reef, eager to benefit from the abundance of fish and, in the process, have tangled with recreational fishermen. The New York Times reports that Red Bird Reef supports 10,000 angler visits a year, compared with just 300 in 1977.

Delaware’s success in repopulating barren stretches of the bay did not go unnoticed by neighboring New Jersey, which has recently requested 600 of the retired subway cars. New York does not charge for the cars and also covers delivery. New Jersey’s request was a poke in the ribs for New York, which announced it would soon stop giving away its aged subway cars, having realized that they are one of the state’s valuable resources.

While many other items such as shopping carts, refrigerators, and washing machines have been used to build artificial reefs, subway cars offer several advantages. They do not shift easily in storms, can accommodate many types of marine life, and those with stainless steel exteriors are especially durable. Most importantly, marine life in the area has increased 400-fold per square foot since the creation of the artificial reef.

Linda is responsible for the PERC web sites, media relations, the national journalism conference, and the media fellows program. She is author of Forest Fires, part of a series of  environmental education books for high school students. She also wrote and produced Square One, a newsletter that introduced grassroots environmentalists to market...
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