Habitat Hotels

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Harbor District Habitat Hotels – underwater habitat retrofits created for steel sheet piling – provide multiple vertical layers of habitat including underwater plants, hiding places for fish, and food for fish and other critters who live in the water. The Habitat Hotels are “pit stops” for fish as they move around the Inner Harbor between other areas with better habitat, or between Lake Michigan and Milwaukee three rivers.


After researching some other examples of “urban shoreline habitat interventions,” we came up with a list of must-haves for the Habitat Hotels design and functionality:

  • Low cost and easy to reproduce
  • Low maintenance
  • Not a hazard to navigation; easily allows for current and future shipping and boating needs
  • Wisconsin winter-proof and not required to remove each winter/install each spring
  • Modular to allow for easy modifications in the future
  • Provides complex habitat spaces at various depths in the water column
  • Provides opportunities to engage the community


  • The Habitat Hotels are vertical habitat structures reaching approximately 9-10 feet down into the water column providing stacked layers of habitat features at various depths.
  • The Habitat Hotels are contained completely within recessed portions of steel sheet pilings so that boats and ships are still able to dock alongside the structures (though we aim to install them in spots with less ship traffic).

Underwater planter baskets: similar to a garden pot, we have repurposed restaurant grade fryer baskets as underwater planter baskets to hold gravel and soil at various depths to grow native aquatic plants, including water lilies! The planter baskets vary from about 2 feet deep to about 5 feet deep depending on the requirements of plants. Currently, each Habitat Hotel has two planter baskets.

Fish shelves: fish shelves are simply a small shelf providing shade, allow fish to hide beneath them, and also allow other critters such as crawfish to perch on top of the shelves.


Project Partners

Harbor District, Inc. works closely with the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and Bradley Technical High School to carry out Habitat Hotel programming.

In August 2016, HDI began working with scientists, technicians, students, and alumni from the School of Freshwater Sciences to develop a design and build our first habitat hotel prototype. The prototype was built by the School of Freshwater Sciences and installed in October 2016 on the School’s dock wall.

In Spring 2017, HDI received a Mini Grant from Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust (Sweet Water) to carry out a pilot phase of the Habitat Hotels program. Working with welding students at Bradley Technical High School, HDI was able to install a pilot set of eight Habitat Hotels in May 2017. The Habitat Hotels were built completely by students at Bradley Tech and were installed by HDI working in partnership with the School of Freshwater Sciences.

HDI also works with many great partners who serve as “site hosts” for Habitat Hotels, including Elementis LTP and Paul Davis Restoration, and we are looking for more partners for future installations!

Going forward HDI and the School of Freshwater Sciences will monitor the Habitat Hotels to see how the structures about impacting the ecology of the Inner Harbor with the goal of improving habitat connectivity.

Project Funding

Support for project development and programming comes from the Fund for Lake Michigan. The pilot project was funded by a Mini Grant from Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, Inc.


Habitat Hotels are currently installed in three distinct locations across the Harbor District. As the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences continues working on their Harbor Habitat Mapping Project, we will prioritize future installation locations based on potential improvements to habitat connectivity – essentially making a string of Habitat Hotels between other areas of rich habitat – in the Inner Harbor.


The geography of the Inner Harbor makes it a very important water body in terms of connecting Lake Michigan and Milwaukee’s three rivers. Any fish – including bass, bluegills, and other sunfish – moving between the Lake and the rivers must pass through the Inner Harbor. However, the Inner Harbor is an “aquatic desert” lacking habitat and opportunities for fish to find food and cover. The Inner Harbor supports an active Port and shipping, and the shoreline here is dominated by steel sheet piling, walls of concrete, and other vertical structures which provide very little cover or food for fish passing through. The Habitat Hotels help connect different pieces of habitat across the Inner Harbor.

What have we learned so far?

If you build it, they will come. We have had signs of life on the few, isolated installations we have completed so far, including a visit from a yearling perch!

The more, the better. Some of our plants could have benefitted from more sun, and we also believe that if we cluster several Habitat Hotels together along a single stretch of bulkhead, that we will likely see increased habitat benefits.

Plants will grow in the Inner Harbor, but they need some protection from waves and they need a lot of sunlight.
We need more help monitoring the Habitat Hotels!

What’s Next?

We plan to continue the Habitat Hotels program working with Bradley Technical High School and the School of Freshwater Sciences Harbor Habitat Mapping team. Our goal is to install 20 Habitat Hotels each year!

Want to learn more, or sponsor a Habitat Hotel at your property? Contact Lindsay Frost, Manager of Water Projects at 414.643.1266 x4, or at Lindsay@HarborDistrict.org

More to come! We are continually working with partners to develop new ideas for habitat features, and we hope to build some new prototypes to use in our 2018 installations.