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Hope Floats in Baltimore’s Harbor


National Aquarium - Floating Wetland

After several years of planning, the National Aquarium and the City of Baltimore have installed a floating wetland in the Harbor! This pilot project attempts to investigate the potential of a new harbor restoration approach for habitat and water quality improvement using floating wetlands.

The goal of the project is to introduce the floating island model to the harbor ecosystem in order to determine if the habitat and water quality improvements seen in other systems are transferrable to Baltimore’s degraded harbor. Floating wetlands have be successful in retention ponds and others small bodies of water, so scientists are very interested in introducing them to brackish areas such as the Chesapeake Bay.

The 10 x 20-foot island that has a base made of woven recycled plastic, around 450 planted native species and is intended to improve water quality and habitats of the Harbor. Completing the project, however, was no easy task. Installation required a crane, a giant platform and around 100 people. To watch the plan in action, click here.

The multi-layer biomesh island provides strength, a huge surface area for beneficial colonization, and a rooting matrix for vegetation. The vegetation provides an aesthetic island cover as well as habitats and food for a variety of wildlife.

Despite poor water quality and its historical status as a dumping ground, the Baltimore Harbor is teeming with life. Aquarium staff monitoring fish activity at Fort McHenry has documented more than twenty five species of fish in the Harbor including Atlantic menhaden, American eel, spot, croaker, yellow perch, white perch, northern pipefish, striped bass, bluefish, and pumpkinseed sunfish. In addition to finfish, the Harbor provides habitat and food sources for blue crabs, snakes, turtles, waterfowl, and small mammals. The installed wetlands could benefit not only the water quality but the animals that live the Harbor as well.

The Waterfront Partnership has also installed another 200 square feet of floating islands adjacent to the World Trade Center. Although the project design and implementation on the two island projects have been separate, both groups have designed a monitoring plan with the help of the University of Maryland that will be led by the National Aquarium. For the next two years, the Aquarium will monitor plant survival and growth, local water improvements, nutrient uptake, fish use, waterfowl uses and debris accumulation. Biologists will also collect structural and functional parameter data.

The island can be spotted behind the ticket counter of the National Aquarium between Pier 3 and 4. Visitors will soon be able read and understand the purpose and benefits of the island from the educational signs posted along the shoreline. The floating wetland may look small, but it could well be a huge first step in meeting the Healthy Harbor Initiative of making the water fishable and swimmable by 2020. Only time will tell if the floating wetlands can contribute to the Healthy Harbor Initiative, but preliminary results are promising.

About Floating Wetlands
  • Floating wetlands have previously been designed for use in small, closed systems and have the potential to provide a combination of habitat and water quality improvements.
  • They help remove pollutants from waterways; provide habitat for species native to the waterway; and enhance the aesthetics of surrounding areas.
  • The floating island becomes an ecosystem that helps to improve water quality via natural processes.