1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Artificial reefs

May 7, 2010

Commuters often compare themselves to sardines in a tin as they ride trains to work. But real fish have been making homes of old trains off the coast of Delaware, and some experts are not too happy about it.

Image of a A New York subway car being dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
A New York subway car is dumped into the Atlantic OceanImage: Kateri Jochum

In 2001, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) offered the Delaware Department of Fishery its old subway cars for the state's artificial reef program, which began in 1996. From then on, it has been called the "Redbird Reef" in honor of New York subway trains, which were called Redbirds.

Sea bass, blue fish, summer flounder and other species have taken refuge in the reef from sharks and other predators. But the nearly 1300 subway cars off Delaware's coast don't just create a safe haven.

"The hard surface of the subway cars is a unique thing down there. Around here, the blue mussels attach themselves and that provides a carpet that has dozens of other species of worms, crabs, and shrimps. The sum of that community is an enriched food source that benefits the reef fish," Jeff Tinsmann, coordinator of Delaware's artificial reef program told Deutsche Welle.

MTA benefits while fishers rejoice

Indeed, fishing enthusiasts, like Kathy Baker, can attest to the flourishing world below. She and her husband own a sports shop in the tourist town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Before the reef was made, she spent hours fishing without catching anything.

Image of a diver descending off the coast of Florida.
A diver descends upon a wreck in a reef off Key Largo, FloridaImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"But once the structures are put in – it is magnificent," Baker said. It is my favourite kind of fishing. My son was visiting from Florida and we caught eight different species of fish in one day."

But the Metropolitan Transit Authority isn't sinking the carriages out of charity.

The subway cars contain asbestos. And although it costs the MTA $17,000 per carriage to dump old wagons into the Atlantic, it is still cheaper than complying with regulations for the disposal of asbestos on land.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that this particular asbestos is not dangerous, so MTA has turned more than 2500 subway cars into artificial reefs and found a way to save itself $34 million dollars.

Environmentalists not satisfied

But the environmental ruling hasn't left everyone as happy as a clam.

"We reviewed nine different scientific papers that showed that asbestos at very small levels, at levels safe enough for humans to drink, caused aquatic life to be harmed," Cindy Zipf, Director of Clean Ocean Action, told Deutsche Welle.

She says that when the metal on the cars corrodes, the blue mussels attach themselves directly to the asbestos, and fish that eat the mussels get exposed to the poison.

"These did not meet the long-term, clean and healthy materials that would make up artificial reef habitat," Zipf said.

Image of the USS Oriskany being sunk into the Gulf of Mexico.
The USS Oriskany which was sunk in the Gulf of Mexico forms the largest artificial reefImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Zipf is worried that the project could set a precedent for dumping asbestos in the ocean as a cheap alternative to safe disposal.

No more trains for underwater graveyard

There are no long-term studies of the effects of the subway cars' asbestos on the marine life. Even so, New York trains will no longer find their final resting place on the ocean floor. The latest subway cars are designed differently, and there will no longer be any financial incentive for the MTA to continue the reef project.

Mike Zacchea, Director of Recycling at the MTA, whose idea it was to turn trains into reefs, thinks subway cars are much more than a means of transportation.

"The subway is such an integral part of the New York city dweller's life," Zacchea said. "They meet new loves and old loves, they get fired from jobs, and all of that is woven into the fabric of their lives. Now the cars will serve the marine community for another 20 years we hope."

Author: Kateri Jochum (sc/cc)
Editor: Nathan Witkop