Federal grant could make eastern CT hub for marine research

September 21, 2021


Federal grant could make eastern Connecticut hub for marine research


GROTON — U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said Thursday he was hopeful the Biden administration would grant final approval early next year to designate a wide swath of eastern Long Island Sound as a National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The proposed 52,160-acre reserve, stretching from the Lower Connecticut River Valley in Essex to the waters around Mason Island in Stonington, could guarantee up to $1 million each year from the federal government for research, educational outreach and coastal management programs, Murphy said.

Several state-owned properties are also included within the boundaries of the reserve, including Bluff Point State Park, two wildlife management areas and the campus of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, which would serve as the lead state agency overseeing the reserve and related programs.

“The proposed location provides critical habitat for birds, fish, and other marine and coastal species of plants and animals in the region,” UConn said in a report published last year. “Designation of the area as an NERR will help provide valuable opportunities to advance relevant efforts in environmental science, monitoring, education, and stewardship.

Established by Congress in 1972, the National Estuarine Research Reserve system is a network of 29 estuary locations designated by the federal government for protection and research. Connecticut is one of two coastal states, along with Louisiana, that do not have a designated research reserve.

“I think there’s an acknowledgment that Connecticut has been missing in action on estuary management for too long,” Murphy said.

Murphy, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, also said Thursday that he is seeking to increase annual funding for estuarine reserves from $28 million to roughly $40 million.

The designation of an Estuarine Research Reserve in eastern Long Island Sound would not make the area off-limits to fishing or other commercial activities that are restricted at other federally-protected areas. At a roundtable discussion with local leaders, environmental advocates and state officials Thursday at UConn Avery Point, Murphy said public support for the reserve would require outreach over the extent of the designation.

“There are no new restrictions that come with this, it’s just about getting more information,” Murphy said. “I think we have to repeat that over and over again.”

Concerns over public buy-in were also raised by state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who said shellfishermen, boaters and other commercial operators in southeastern Connecticut have been left with lingering questions since the state applied to designate the estuary in 2019.

“There are folks who are concerned about best practices, how that will affect marinas, how that will affect people who live on the shoreline,” Somers said, later adding, “not everybody’s up to speed with what’s going on here.”

Murphy said he has not heard any significant concerns regarding the designation from the Biden administration or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which provides the funding and federal guidance for the reserve system.

“All the signals we get are that this is on a path toward approval and we could see money in 2022 flowing to dramatically improve the way we protect this stretch of the Sound,” Murphy said.

NOAA approved the site location soon after the application was submitted by the state. Earlier this month, the agency opened a public comment period for an environmental impact statement and management plan for the proposed reserve.

Comments can be submitted online, and a virtual public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 7.