Chicago River’s Fish Hotel

July 15, 2010

Submitted by Desiree Donovan

Project Description:

            It may not be the four seasons, but the Fish Hotel is a welcome oasis for its many visitors.  Located just off the Michigan Ave. bridge this 42 ft. by 10 ft. floating structure offers hope in a bleak aquatic environment.[1] The mission of the Fish Hotel is create a habitat that is fish friendly, offering the nooks and crannies that are integral for the fishes’ spawning, shelter and food sources.


            In 1890, the direction of the Chicago River was reversed and a large straight channel was dug for downtown shipping.[2] These two civic feats, combined with the effects of the heavy pollution they were meant to address, destroyed nearly all of the important habitat for native aquatic life. Despite the recent upgrade from toxic to very polluted by the EPA, the Chicago River still has sides of concrete and steel, void of any vegetated nooks and crannies.[3]

Hopeful Effect/Outcomes:

            This “Fish Hotel,” surrounded by buoyant dock material, is a structure situated along the river’s bank that provides fish with some of the habitat they need for key aspects of their life cycle. A large number of native species including trout, blue gill, green sunfish, carp and salmon now flock to the hotel that is filled with local wetland plants. Fish are not the only species attracted to the habitat, however; monarch butterflies, caterpillars and other insects that fish snack on, as well as muskrats and a large variety of birds also visit the hotel.[4]

            The benefits of the Michigan Avenue Fish Hotel to wildlife is clear, less expected, though, are the benefits it has had on human residents and visitors to Chicago. This self-contained floating garden is aesthetically pleasing, offering a burst of color and life on the notoriously sullied, murky water way. The use of native wetland plant species, while providing a sustainable food source for fish and insects, has, in effect, become beautiful landscaping at river level. The project also serves as an educational exhibit for the public, raising awareness about local ecosystems and our impact on them. Free tours are held once a week by McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum staff that focus on native fish habitat in the river.[5] Plans  are also underway to attach underwater cameras to the habitat which would allow visitors a glimpse of the action below.[6]

            I find this project to be an exciting start for Chicagoans in embracing nature in their urban environment. Its easy accessibility to the public is another major plus for the project. The structure itself is eye catching, drawing attention to the overarching mission and promoting questions and discussions of urban ecology in the community. 

            River ecology may not be a common household topic now, but the Fish Hotel does bring home the concept that the river is not a lifeless and wholly man-made structure, but the site of natural ecosystems that can be revived and flourish. It sparks hope that nature can thrive in an urban environment, not outside of it but alongside it.

[Edited by Cecile Parrish and Fiacha Heneghan] 

[1] “Currents: News from the River.” Friends of the Chicago River and RoLanka International, Inc.,                2005, <>.

[2] “Chicago River,” Encyclopedia of Chicago,

[3] “‘Fish Hotel Attracts Chicago River Marine Life,’” NPR, 2005,

[4] “Fish Hotel,” Friends of the Chicago River, 2006,

[5] ibid.

[6] Thomas, Monfia. “‘Hotel’ hopes to lure fish back to Downtown .” Chicago Sun-Times 7 Aug. 2005. Print.


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