As tourists and residents visit Seattle’s downtown waterfront, it may not be immediately apparent they are walking on arguably the largest, most ambitious urban seawall project in the world that prioritizes habitat for young fish and the invertebrates they feed on.

The first segment of the new seawall along Seattle’s Elliott Bay is nearly complete, stretching north from the Colman Dock to the Seattle Aquarium. The new seawall, part of the City’s Waterfront Seattle project, includes habitat features that protect and encourage young salmon to migrate along the shore, while still allowing for normal waterfront commerce and activity.

University of Washington researchers have published an initial analysis of the effectiveness of the new habitat features as part of an ongoing partnership with the Seattle Department of Transportation. The study found that adding steps ― which are shelf-like structures protruding from the vertical underwater wall ― helped recruit a greater diversity of organisms such as algae and small invertebrates that juvenile salmon feed upon as they migrate along the shore through Puget Sound and out to the ocean.

“The big question with urban shorelines is how to protect infrastructure while maintaining stability with sea-level rise and storms — and still try to restore natural processes,” said Jason Toft, a research scientist at the UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and a co-author of the new study appearing in the book Living Shorelines: The Science and Management of Nature-Based Coastal Protection. “We are trying to address what other cities can learn from Seattle’s approach, and what we can add to the global discussion of how to both protect and restore our shorelines.”

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