Underwater Hotels Under Construction To Make Milwaukee Harbor Hospitable To Fish

Sep 21, 2018

If you were a fish, you probably wouldn’t choose the harbor — where Milwaukee’s three rivers converge — as a favorite hangout.

After all, its primary function has been commercial since the 1800s. Its edges are lined with steel piling and the bottom is dredged to maintain a depth of 25 feet, allowing safe passage of large vessels conveying cement, salt and such.

And the highly urbanized waterway faces challenges, not least of which is stormwater runoff that sends pollutants into the harbor. But efforts are underway to improve water quality and encourage aquatic life to grow.

Brennan Dow, a recent UWM School of Freshwater Sciences grad, looked for areas fish might thrive. “I mapped the habitat in the Milwaukee harbor and its residing tributaries,” he says.

Dow sonar-scanned 40 miles of shoreline in and outside the harbor — something that had never been done before — and found promising areas nearby, including in the Summerfest lagoon.

“We figured out that beach was a very good spawning location for fish. We ended out finding rock bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, pumpkinseed, bluegill,” Dow says.

There’s also habitat upstream. But inside the harbor, it's pretty much a biological desert.

Lindsay Frost, water projects manager with Harbor District Inc., set out to change that. That's when the habitat hotel idea hatched.

“What fish like is a shoreline with a nice natural slope with places for plants to grow, rocks in different crevices where fish can hide and find bugs and find food. So, what we’re doing is mimicking that natural shoreline in a vertical fashion,” Frost says.

An illustration of a habitat hotel, which includes a 10-to-12-foot-long steel pole, shelves and baskets for fish and other underwater life.
Credit Harbor District, Inc.

Bradley Tech High School welding students are helping craft the oases to provide fish with rest stops on their way to and from Lake Michigan.

A 10-to-12-foot-long steel pole is the center of the habitat hotel. Water celery and pickerel plants fill a series of shelves and baskets attached to the pole. Frost says they’re components of a healthy ecosystem — to nurture plants, fish and other aquatic organisms.

“We basically drilled holes for the brackets, welded, so we can hold them on with chain. They have little feet so they stay off the wall. It’s a seawall for fish that don’t have homes in the harbor,” says Gavin Felician, a Bradley Tech student.

The habitat hotel project began in 2015 with a prototype fabricated by the School of Freshwater Sciences and featured a custom-made basket.

“Then, I started thinking, that looks a lot like a fryer basket,” Project Manager Lindsay Frost says.

She now buys fish fryer baskets from a Milwaukee supplier. “One of everyone’s favorite components is that you take [a] fish fryer basket and you give it back to the fish,” Frost says. 

A fish fryer is welded so it can be added to one of the underwater habitat hotels.
Credit Lindsay Frost

She hopes one day the underwater habitat hotels will line the harbor’s edge. “All of the fish traveling between the lake and the rivers have to go through the inner harbor. So, this is essentially providing connection points between the different higher quality pieces of habitat,” Frost says.

Seventeen of the systems have been installed. Nearly three dozen more are in the works.

Since they’re underwater, you can't spot them. But above the surface, look for steel fish. Bradley Tech’s welding class laser cut them to mark each habitat’s location.

Steel fish, like the blue on pictured, mark the underwater locations of habitat hotels.
Credit Susan Bence

Student welder Gavin Felician loved the role he played in the project. It turns out he doesn’t just love welding, Felician loves fish too.

“I do a lot of fishing in the summer, catching walleyes, pike, northern, bass, all summer long. So, just knowing I’ll be catching more fish will be cool,” Felician says.

Harbor District's Lindsay Frost reports that fish have been hanging out at the habitat hotels. You can see some of the action on the Harbor District website.

And the habitat hotels are getting other nibbles. Recently they were granted a provisional patent.

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