underwater photo of two fish in a habitat structureEnhancing Aquatic Habitat in Presque Isle Bay

A habitat is the natural setting where a plant or animal lives. There are many human and naturally occurring impacts to habitats, which can alter a species ability to live and thrive.

One of Pennsylvania Sea Grant’s partners, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, works to enhance lake habitat for fish and aquatic species throughout Pennsylvania, including Presque Isle Bay, in Erie. Enhancements are made through the installation of man-made structures that mimic natural fish habitat and result in healthier, more diverse aquatic communities. That’s good for the fish, anglers — and for the local economy, which relies on tourism and fishing.

The structures offer cover and specific habitats that fish need for spawning and feeding so they can survive and thrive. They also provide newly hatched juvenile fish, called ‘fry,’ with protection and cover so they can survive and mature.

For twenty-three years, volunteers with the Erie-based organization, Save Our Native Species of Lake Erie (S.O.N.S.), have been working with tVolunteers with SONS of Lake Eriehe Commission, PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to build and deploy the habitat structures in Presque Isle Bay. Their efforts began in 1995, and continue to expand and broaden to make room for new partners - including Pennsylvania Sea Grant. 

Pennsylvania Sea Grant’s Maritime Education Specialist, David Boughton (retired, June 2019), saw the fish habitat enhancement efforts as a grand educational opportunity for local students, already engaged in PA Sea Grant’s Fisheries Science Program, to lend a hand and learn about aquatic habitats. In 2011, Boughton and students from the Erie-region school district joined the Commission, DCNR, DEP, and S.O.N.S., in the effort to build, deploy, and monitor structures.

PA Sea Grant's David Boughton works with volunteers and students




Volunteer-made structures have been part of the Commission’s habitat management for more than twenty years. Each structure has a thirty-year plus lifespan and are often made of native materials including wood, logs and branches from tree species like hemlock and pine, and rock rubble.There are generally three types of structures are used, with the most common being the porcupine crib.
porcupine crib photo and explanation of what it is

 Students, Commission staff, S.O.N.S. volunteers, and PA Sea Grant participate in building the structures, which can weigh up to 600 pounds.

 volunteers build fish habitat structures  volunteers build fish habitat structures  volunteers build fish habitat structures

PA Fish & Boat Commission, S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie, PA Sea Grant, volunteers, and students installing porcupine cribs - soon to become underwater fish habitat. Credit Anna McCartney          



Each year, usually in early October, students, staff, and volunteers build a minimum of twenty structures. The structures are then loaded onto a specially designed PA Fish & Boat Commission boat and deployed into Presque Isle Bay, including sites near the Niagara Boat Launch, the outflow of Mill Creek, Hammermill cribs area, and the South Channel fishing area. 

map of presque isle bay


Presque Isle Bay Aquatic Habitat Enhancement Sites 

CLICK HERE for a full-size version




volunteers deploy fish habitat structures  volunteers deploy fish habitat structures  volunteers deploy fish habitat structures  volunteers deploy fish habitat structures



Summertime gives Commission biologists, PA Sea Grant, volunteers, and students the opportunity to survey existing structures to document fish counts and species identification.  

scientists inspect fish habitat structures scientists check equipment

In early August 2018, Commission biologists completed an underwater survey of the structures using surface supplied air (Brownies Third Lung). Diving with surface supplied air allowed them to spend extended time underwater to survey the fish and how they interacted with the structures.

The August 2018 survey showed success - the biologists identified eleven different fish species and the structures were teeming with small native fry. In addition, biologists noted that there were surprisingly few Round goby in the structures, Zebra mussel colonization was limited to the concrete weighted blocks, and that the structures had remained on the surface of the lake bottom versus being buried in the sediment. 

 Underwater fish habitat structure - photo includes link to underwater video  monitoring underwater structures - photo includes link to online video

Surface supplied air diving equipment; PA Fish & Boat Commission habitat experts preparing underwater photography gear. Underwater images of fish habitat enhancements, credit PA Fish & Boat Commission.

under water robots  deploying underwater robots

PA Sea Grant's David Boughton prepares underwater ROV to gather water quality data.

For more information visit:

PA Fish & Boat Commission 

Save Our Native Species (S.O.N.S.) of Lake Erie






Main Office: Tom Ridge Environmental Center 301 Peninsula Dr., Suite 3 Erie, PA 16505 814-217-9011