Commissioner’s Quay at Blyth is the latest location for Groundwork North East & Cumbria’s pioneering work to improve biodiversity and water quality in the region’s rivers and estuaries.  The Port of Blyth who own and operate the Quay has played a key role in supporting the installation of a web of 57 vertically hanging artificial ‘Shelter Shells’, the biggest installation of its kind in the world.

The Shelter Shells are custom moulded pod-like structures with scalloped edges to replicate the look of an open clam shell.  Some have window holes that allow fish and other creatures to swim through, others will be suspended like upturned cups to provide tide pool nesting sites for organisms and marine life when the tide goes out.

The shells each weighing 12kg, are suspended in pairs on a central chain with one facing up, the other down. The 57 hanging structures will provide a cluster of shelter covering 4m distance down/vertically and 15m across/horizontally.  The hope is that the cluster will create a halo effect that will have greater results than single shell shelters positioned on their own.  The structure hangs from horizontal beams within Commissioner’s Quay at Blyth and will be submerged under water at different tidal times and visible to the public at low tide.

The Blyth estuary is a leading offshore energy support base, an important hub for the movement of a range of project, containerised, dry bulk and break bulk cargoes as well as a strategic hub used by many shippers looking to serve northern England and Scotland.  Commissioner’s Quay was chosen because it is out of the main channel of the port where natural habitats have been lost due to the industrial workings of the river.  The hope is that these efforts will help to restore some of these lost habitats.

Groundwork commissioned ecological engineers, Biomatrix Water to design and create the Shelter Shells, which are hand moulded and sculpted, then cast in fine concrete. The surfaces of the artificial shells are intricately textured and ridged to replicate surfaces that would appear in nature and will hopefully attract plant and animal life to live, feed and rest to improve biodiversity and water quality in the estuary. The Shelter Shells have been moulded and cast in different coloured concrete to attract different species. The colour palette ranges from reds and yellows, which are known to attract fish to dark brown, orange, light grey and off white.

One of the huge benefits of the suspended Shelter Shells is that they can recreate intertidal habitats for different plant and animal species in a suspended vertical plane.  Artificial habitat zones are created at different heights and the structures can be hung anywhere providing an innovative solution to creating artificial reef structures in any waterway, anywhere in the world.

Similar structures have been installed successfully in the Red Sea hanging from floating buoys and more locally a smaller trial site in Whitby Harbour, North Yorkshire, at the Eden Project in Cornwall and in the Thames Estuary in London.  Blyth is by far the biggest test site to date and will allow the Shelter Shells to be closely monitored.  Groundwork will use endoscopic cameras to capture what activity is happening in the shelters and the hope is that there will be bio-fill forming in a matter of weeks.  More complex life forms may take months.

In addition to the hanging Shelter Shells, Groundwork have installed Vertipools, artificial rock pools, designed by Artecology, on the East pier of the harbour wall, and are also planning a series of gabion baskets, metal framed structures containing rocks and pipes to provide refuge and shelter for marine life.  All these efforts will be closely monitored by Groundwork on a quarterly basis using endoscopic and underwater cameras to see how things are developing.

Hellen Hornby, Nature Based Solutions Lead, from Groundwork North East & Cumbria said;

“We are excited to see this project finally coming to fruition.  It has taken nearly three years from concept to installation.  It is a major breakthrough to install a project of this size in one place and will provide a tremendous opportunity to measure the benefits of such artificial habitats to the wildlife of the Blyth estuary .  A huge amount of planning and preparation goes into these projects from landowner and stakeholder engagement, survey work, licencing and permissions to the installation and monitoring.  In this case the creation of the Shelter Shells themselves was intricate and time consuming to get right.  We can’t wait to see the results of our joint efforts and will be monitoring the site over the coming year.

“We are building a diverse portfolio of pioneering projects of this kind across the six estuaries in the North East using a huge range of Nature Based Solutions. The aim is to use nature to tackle some of the impacts of industrial damage on our natural habitats. By creating artificial intertidal and estuarian habitats here in Blyth, we hope to encourage the return of marine life, improve biodiversity and water quality, especially in waterways like this that have been impacted upon by years of industrial use.  All these efforts are designed to offer some defence in the fight against climate change by increasing intertidal habitat which is at risk due to sea-level rises and coastal squeeze.”