More than 50,000 acres of CT estuaries and Long Island Sound designated as ‘living laboratories’

Federal authorities formally designated more than 50,000 acres of eastern Long Island Sound as a National Estuarine Research Reserve, the first reserve of its kind to be established in the waters of Connecticut.

The reserve, which stretches from the Lower Connecticut River Valley in Essex to the waters around Mason Island in Stonington, will also include parcels of land already protected through state parks, federal wildlife areas and local nonprofits.

The designation will not impose new limits on activities such as boating or commercial fishing within the reserve’s boundaries, but instead will guarantee that up to $1 million in federal funding is made available each year for research, educational outreach and coastal management programs within the reserve.

The announcement was made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which funds a network of 30 estuarine reserves around the nation, including the newly designated reserve in Long Island Sound. Before the designation, Connecticut was one of just two coastal states, along with Louisiana, to not have an estuarine reserve. The designation became official Friday.

“Partnerships are key to the success of our research reserves, and support from the Connecticut congressional delegation, state officials, and local leaders was critical to this designation,” Nicole LeBoeuf, director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service,said in a statement. “Each reserve brings together stakeholders, scientists, land management professionals and educators to understand coastal management issues and generate local, integrated solutions, while leveraging the science generated within the nationwide network of reserves to make our coasts more resilient.”

Included within the reserve’s boundaries are all or portions of Bluff Point State Park, Haley Farm State Park, the Great Island Wildlife Area, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Marine Headquarters and Connecticut Audubon Society’s Roger Tory Peterson Nature Area.

Those locations cover an array of environments, from the Connecticut River watershed and tidal marshes to the Long Island Sound Sound and its rocky coves and inlets.

The headquarters for the reserve will be located on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point.

Sylvain De Guise, director of UConn’s Sea Grant program at Avery Point, said a steering committee made up of the Sea Grant program, UConn Marine Sciences and DEEP will be in charge of hiring the staff to oversee the reserve.

“It’s a lot of opportunities for collaboration,” De Guise said, describing the purpose of a research reserve. “Coordination and collaboration between a program (like UConn Sea Grant) that’s responsible for serving a state and a program that is based on a place where you go and touch it and see it.”

During the application process, which began in 2016, Connecticut Audubon Society Executive Director Patrick Comins said his group was consulted to form a list of species of conservation concern — which eventually grew to include about 400 species of birds, fish, mammals, invertebrates and plants.

The location for the reserve was approved by NOAA in 2019, a few months after the state submitted its nomination for the site. A public comment period was opened last fall on the proposal, before final approval of the designation was granted by President Joe Biden’s Department of Commerce.

“We’re excited that some of the amazing natural resources of Long Island Sound, the Connecticut River, and some of our state parks and natural area preserves will be utilized as a ‘living laboratory’ that can help advance national efforts in addressing issues such as climate change and environmental stewardship now and in the future,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a statement hailing the announcement.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, also championed the designation on Friday as part of federal and state efforts to protect the Sound and its watershed. Murphy, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, held a roundtable with local leaders in Connecticut last September, where he announced he would also seek to increase annual funding for estuarine reserves from $28 million to $40 million.

“This designation is a huge win for our state and will increase the funding Connecticut gets to improve the health of the Sound,” Murphy said. “I will continue to use my seat on the Appropriations Committee to grow support for the National Estuarine Research Reserve System so this new site can thrive.”

Other examples of estuarine research reserves in the area include the Narragansett Bay Reserve in Rhode Island and the Hudson River Reserve in New York.

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