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How 2,500+ Retired Subway Cars Were Dumped into the Ocean to Create Artificial Reefs for Fishes 

subway cars were dumped into the Ocean

When metal is dumped into the ocean, some eyebrows are raised for sure. But this time it was a bit different. For the first time, it turned out that throwing unused metals into the ocean waters has a positive side effect too. The Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York dumped more than 2,500 subway cars right into the ocean in order to create reefs for fishes to live in. This step by the NYC authority turned into a huge success. Photographer Stephen Mallon of the Front Room Gallery captured the project over a period of three years. The photos were stunning and full of life!

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Subway cars being dumped into ocean
Image Credit: Stephen Mallon

The artificial reef project was started by The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in 2001. The idea was to create artificial reefs for fishes in the Atlantic with the help of old and unused subway cars. The project expanded along the coast of Delaware to South Carolina.

Retired subway cars
Retired subway cars waiting to be dumped into the ocean. Image Credit: Stephen Mallon

In 2001, Delaware was the first state to receive subway cars from New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. As of 2010, Delaware boasts of 14 permitted artificial reef sites that were sculpted from concrete structures, sunken vessels, old subway cars, and decommissioned military vehicles.

Subway car lowered into the ocean
A retired subway car being lowered into the waters. Image Credit: Stephen Mallon

One reef in particular, known as the “Redbird Reef,” was made from a majority of subway cars. Redbird comprises of 714 “Redbird” subway cars (hence the name), eight tugboats, 86 tanks, and 3,000 tons of tires from trucks. Today, the site is home to numerous marine species such as black sea bass, blue mussels, flounder, sponges, coral, and barnacles. Also, over a period of seven years, the quantity of marine food increased by 400-fold.

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The project was carried out along the coasts of Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The subway cars were first cleaned of any materials or structures that might be harmful to the fish. After stripping the cars of their interiors, all that was left were large, empty, box-shaped objects that were perfect for water circulation and for fish to swim around. These were then hauled into the ocean with the help of barges. 

Subway cars on barges
Subway cars being carried to the drop point on barges. Image Credit: Stephen Mallon

The subway cars underwent a form of cleaning before being dumped into the ocean. The potentially hazardous materials such as greasy and oily parts were removed. Also, potential barrier structures such as doors, windows, motors, wheels, seats, hydraulics, light fixtures, and the AC systems were removed. The interiors were properly steam-cleaned too.

Subway cars being dropped in sea
A hydraulic lift was used to pick up the cars and drop them. Image Credit: Stephen Mallon

Whatever was left after the stripping was tossed into the ocean with the help of barges. A hydraulic lift was used to pick up the cars and drop them one at a time, once a month. Initially, the subway cars attracted invertebrates and small migrating fish. Eventually, they started attracting a myriad of marine life such as different types of fish, sharks, and sea turtles.

Retired subway cars being dumped into the ocean
Subway cars being dumped into the ocean. Image Credit: 1, 2 via Stephen Mallon.

Although there have been numerous such initiatives with different materials, subway cars were found to be roomy enough for certain fish.  Also, their heavyweight does not make them shift easily in storms and are long lasting without throwing off much debris.

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There were few oppositions from environmental groups who were of the opinion that the asbestos present in the subway cars was harmful to marine life. But this was soon ruled out. The project ended in 2010 on a note of success.

Certain environmental groups, such as The American Littoral Society, were opposed to this project. They were critical on the use of Redbird subway cars as these are known to contain a certain amount of asbestos. The asbestos is present in the glue that secures the floor panels and the wall insulation.

Marine life underwater subway cars
This is how the carriages look after a decade. Image Credit: Express Water Sports

Studies were carried out by the state and federal environmental officials. They approved the use of Redbirds as the asbestos did not pose any threat to marine life. Moreover, it had to be airborne to be harmful to humans. There was a certain push by the officials to use New York City’s cars as they are comprised of only stainless steel on the outside and also contain less asbestos as compared to the other subway cars.

Marine life underwater subway cars
This is how the carriages look after a decade. Image Credit: Express Water Sports

The NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority ended the project in 2010. Their main reason for stopping the project was the increasing use of plastic in newer cars. They had already dumped the oldest ones. Also, the new ones were getting too costly to strip. But overall, the project was a success and the carriages created a whole new life under the Atlantic waters.

But unfortunately, Delaware, the first state to incorporate this project, is dealing with a tragedy of their own success. The reefs are getting overcrowded by more and more fish coming in! Also, with the thriving underwater community, there has been an increase in fishing and theft around these artificial reefs. 

Certain species of fish, such as summer flounder and bass, are expanding their population so fast on the subway cars that the Delaware authorities are thinking of expanding the housing capabilities. But the officials are finding it hard to procure subway cars from NYC for free as other states are competing for them too. Apparently, the success the project saw in Delaware made other states realize they should do it too.

Commercial fishing boats
Commercial fishing boats. Image Credit: Pixabay

Apart from that, commercial fishermen are constantly getting their lines tangled of the hooks and corners of the carriages. This had made the state officials request the federal authorities to ban commercial fishing in the concerned areas.  Moreover, crimes such as theft and sabotage of fishing lines are on the rise. Capt. David Lewis of the Delaware Bay Launch Service says, “People now don’t just steal the fish inside the pots out here, they’ve started stealing the pots, too.”

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