Restoring, revitalizing and protecting the Cuyahoga River

Partnering to create a healthier habitat on the Cuyahoga


The Cuyahoga River shipping channel is sometimes referred to as a lifeline to ArcelorMittal Cleveland. This federal navigation channel is a critical six-mile maritime route that delivers five million tons of essential raw materials to the facility’s docks each year. But ArcelorMittal and other industries along the banks of the Cuyahoga aren’t the only ones that rely on the shipping channel for their livelihood. The river is also home to a rich ecology of fish, plants and other wildlife.

With support from ArcelorMittal and the Sustain Our Great Lakes program, Cuyahoga River Restoration – a local nonprofit organization committed to restoring and protecting the river – is working to make the shipping channel healthy and productive for both industry and fish through a program called “Habitat for Hard Places.” 

“We know that when things are better for fish, they’re better for people,” explained Jane Goodman, executive director, Cuyahoga River Restoration.

Fish can have a difficult time traveling the industrial shipping channel. The steel walls that maintain the channel for large freighters don’t naturally provide vegetation necessary to give shelter, food and oxygen for fish. This can create a “hard place” environment for larval and juvenile fish if they cannot find places to grow and breed, hide from larger fish or hungry birds, or rest on their journey to and from Lake Erie. So Cuyahoga River Restoration and its partners are developing and testing new “habitats” that can support fish in this unique environment.

Goodman likes to think of these habitats installed along the shipping channel’s bulkheads like a series of rest areas along a highway: “They are like truck stops or nurseries for fish.”

“We’ve been able to build fish shelves, and fish pockets, so that fish moving at different parts of their lifecycle have a place to stop. ArcelorMittal… [has] been one of the finest, most supportive partners in restoring this part of the river, which many people thought would be totally impossible.”

This spring, 600 habitat units were installed, covering 3,600 linear feet of bulkhead in two-mile stretch of the channel. Half of the units are hanging on or adjacent to ArcelorMittal Cleveland property. Goodman said that monitoring over the summer showed that algae (food for fish) is successfully growing on the structures and fish have already been observed using the rest stops.

Fish habitatsAbout the habitats (photo): Cuyahoga River Restoration convened a diverse working group of engineers, biologists, industry representatives, and biomimicry experts to design and prototype fish habitats. The habitats needed to be able to accumulate organic material, withstand the sometimes rough conditions of the Cuyahoga River, be easy to remove for maintenance, and be cost effective to build and install. Two designs were selected. According to Cuyahoga River Restoration: “One design is a vertical box wrapped in chain link fence material with shelves to accommodate future addition of gravel or organics, and the other is based on a fence gate, enclosing the bulkhead corrugations but able to be opened to allow the hanging of enhancements between the gate the wall. Rope knots have been added to enhance the growth of algae, a primary food source for small fish.”

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