An estuary in Connecticut highlights the benefits of studying and enjoying the nation’s network of estuarine research reserves—and why there should be more.
A grand osprey nest sits atop a wooden post rising above golden switch grass at the mouth of the Connecticut River, right where it pours into Long Island Sound. The nest is one of many that the majestic fish-eating raptors use as a home base—and a perch to spy their next meal.
It’s also part of a popular science project. “Osprey Nation,” organized by the Connecticut Audubon Society along with the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection—known as DEEP—is made up of 400 volunteers who keep an eye on the birds. When osprey mothers vacate the nest, observers kayak out and count eggs—and record the birds’ ongoing remarkable turnaround story. A half-century ago, the raptors were ingesting DDT through the fish they ate, thwarting their ability to reproduce, and they nearly went extinct. But the pesticide was banned in the early 1970s, and now the birds are thriving. Last year the volunteers counted 858 fledglings, according to the 2021 Osprey Nation report.
And now there will be opportunity for even more study because the osprey’s home slice of a 52,160-acre area—along Connecticut’s southeastern shore from Old Saybrook east to Mystic—has become a National Estuarine Research Reserve, or NERR. In January, Connecticut joined a five-decade-old national system comprising 30 coastal sites in 23 states and Puerto Rico that’s designated to protect and study estuaries—those areas where land meets an ocean or Great Lake.
The Pew Charitable Trusts began working in 2018 to support the expansion of the NERR network and existing sites as the organization’s ocean conservation work grew to include coastal habitats. “Though they often don’t get the attention of ocean initiatives, the estuarine reserves are incredibly valuable from an economic standpoint, as a barometer of climate change and as an education tool,” says Tom Wheatley, who works on Pew’s ocean conservation team. “In addition, the sites consist of lands and waters that are already public, so they don’t require additional large purchases of valuable coastal property.”
Established through the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972, the reserve system is a partnership program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the coastal states. NOAA provides funding and guidance; each state’s site is managed by a lead state agency or university—in this case, the University of Connecticut—and works with many local and regional partners. Day-to-day management of each reserve remains in the hands of the state.
Getting a reserve designation can take time; most take about five years. Connecticut was an anomaly, taking about two decades with various interruptions, such as Hurricane Sandy. Members of the public weighed in as well, since they regularly hike, picnic, birdwatch, bike, fish, swim, and sail in the spaces that now make up the reserve.
The reserves are “nationally significant and locally relevant,” says Kevin O’Brien, supervising environmental analyst at DEEP, who was a steering committee member for the reserve site. “And the conditions here in Connecticut’s NERR are diverse, like you want in a financial portfolio.”
The reserve’s shoreline is a geographic mosaic: wetlands, marshes, shallow-water and offshore habitats, cold-water corals, bluffs, pebbled and sandy beaches, coastal grasslands, and two populated communities on the Connecticut and Thames rivers sitting between New York City and Boston on some of the last undeveloped coast of Long Island Sound.
Even choosing the boundaries for a reserve in such a diverse area yielded surprises. “We started with a blank slate,” says Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, who has been involved in the NERR’s formation for about a decade and who also oversees Osprey Nation. “We know the Connecticut River is a vital component of Long Island Sound and watershed. But in the discovery process, we found species we didn’t know existed—like some rays, and dogfish, which are on the global endangered list.”
Better known is the menagerie of animals that make the area home. More than 200 species of birds, 1,200 species of invertebrates, and 120 species of fish use the state’s southeastern estuaries to live, feed, and breed, or as a way station during migrations—and 400 of them are on the state’s endangered species list. Regulars include eastern coyote, big brown bats, and the northern leopard frog. Twelve kinds of snakes slither and seven kinds of turtles creep through pristine forests. Blue, green, hermit, and horseshoe crabs crawl around the beaches. Offshore, commercially important lobsters, quahogs, and oysters use the estuary as a nursery and spawning grounds, and natural oyster beds give fish a safe haven.
Largemouth bass, winter flounder, Atlantic salmon and Atlantic sturgeon, skates and rays, lobsters, and two kinds of shark swim where freshwater and saltwater mingle. Sea mammals are there, too. Seals, porpoises, dolphins, and humpback whales forage in the reserve. And above it all, loons, gulls, plovers, cormorants, snowy owls, bald eagles, and—of course—the ospreys fly.
“It’s like a living laboratory,” O’Brien says.
Climate Change Testing Ground
And like all working laboratories, this coastal one produces science.
“We’re so excited to welcome the Connecticut site into the system,” says Erica Seiden, who manages the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) program at NOAA. Its membership “will allow more data and research to be applied to address climate change and other major impacts to our coasts.”
In Connecticut, much like the rest of the world, rising air temperatures, water temperatures, and water levels have all contributed to increased flooding. But in a coastal ecosystem that’s heavily populated, flooding can be more apparent—and dangerous.
“The floods that used to happen every decade will now happen every one to two years,” says Jim O’Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation, who has been conducting research on the coastal ecosystem of Long Island Sound for 30 years. “What interventions make sense? How do we protect infrastructure while preserving ecosystems? That’s the value of a national system” of estuarine reserves.
The new reserve is in eastern Connecticut, where pristine marshlands have been protected and preserved by aggressive management policies—with which, for the most part, towns and residents have complied, unlike in other coastal areas and marshlands around the country. By using the same types of data, measuring systems, and technology across all the country’s estuarine reserves, managers of the reserves can compare notes—gaining valuable insights for which flood prevention practices actually work.
“Estuarine habitats such as salt marshes and oyster reefs help reduce damage from flooding, coastal storms, storm surges, and other damaging consequences of sea level rise,” says Pew’s Wheatley. “As coastal populations continue to grow, conserving these natural defenses will become even more important. And NERRS can play important outsized roles in protecting these special places.”
Big storms also pose big threats. Damage in Connecticut from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive natural events to hit the state, cost $360 million in repair, response, and restoration, according to Nature magazine. To minimize damage from future storms, other reserves are using nature-based solutions such as sand and silt to build up the marshes and sustain the water’s rising. Such conservation measures can pay off: For every $1 invested in disaster mitigation, communities save $6 in recovery costs, according to the Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council, a public-private partnership established by Congress.
“Our estuary is under attack from rising sea levels, and big storms like Sandy are expected every five to 10 years,” says John Forbis, vice chairman of the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center in Old Lyme, who also worked on the site selection for the NERR. “Now, we’ll have access to the NERR club, which is very friendly and helpful, and we all benefit. We’re all in it together and with NOAA’s help, we have the best minds mobilized to handle” the effects of floods.
Because they occupy the areas where sea meets the land, “all the reserves are uniquely suited as sentinel sites for climate change,” says O’Brien. “They can also mobilize people to be scientists.”
Estuary University, a School for All
Connecticut’s estuarine reserve is also a classroom. Already in place are hands-on science programs for students, third grade to college: Project Oceanology, a nonprofit run by school districts in collaboration with state colleges and universities, allows residents of all ages to get their hands dirty—and wet—as they study the ecology of their marine environments on land, in shallow waters, and in Long Island Sound.
On shore, students use nets to capture fish and study their diversity. In the water, they ride research vessels into the sound to count seals or sea gulls or visit an oyster farm and record sizes of the bivalves. They use oceanographic equipment to measure the temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, pH, and carbon dioxide of the water—key data for monitoring the health of the ocean. They examine live lobsters and discuss the demise of the crustaceans in the region.
“As a teacher, I can help my students make more immediate connections when they’re outside in the environment, when the sea is around them,” says Kathy Howard, a teacher at Marine Science Magnet High School in Groton, a town of 40,000 on the coast. “And more and more teachers in the area are going outside to teach, instead of just relying on a classroom.”
The resources of NOAA also help teachers such as Howard in reserves across the country. The agency currently offers workshops to train teachers on how to use the estuaries as classrooms and provides online curriculum materials, data, and lesson plans. And Connecticut’s academic lessons will also likely help another NERR.
In addition to existing education programs, the new reserve designation is inspiring ideas for other science collection projects, says Jamie Vaudrey, a member of the steering committee who is a professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, the seaside campus that will also host the reserve’s headquarters. One project could feature citizen photographs taken of the same place over time, providing a real-time look at how a key place can transform. “People on a walk or hike stand in the same place, looking at the same view, and shoot,” she says. “Then, they upload their shots to a central database and create a record of how the estuary changes over time.”
An Economic Driver
Reserves, especially ones popular with the public, also drive local economies.
A study released last year by the nonprofit Restore America’s Estuaries and NOAA found that the nation’s estuaries constitute only 4% of the U.S. continental landmass but are home to 40% of the country’s population and responsible for 47% of the nation’s gross domestic product. In addition, a June 2021 analysis by NOAA and Pew found that four of the country’s NERR sites generated at least $165 million in combined annual revenue for their communities, including 1,762 jobs. According to DEEP, Long Island Sound—which also borders New York state—generates some $7 billion for the regional economy.
Tourism is a big reason for that. In the summers, Connecticut’s southern shores attract vacationers, beach lovers, crabbers, fishers, kayakers, and sailors. Designated trails through coastal forests support hiking, birding, and mountain biking.
Because they strengthen local economies as well as serve as outdoor classrooms and scientific laboratories, estuarine reserves will almost certainly expand in number around the country. Wisconsin is investigating creating a reserve in Green Bay—the largest freshwater estuary in the world—to complement the state’s existing one in the St. Louis River estuary on Lake Superior.
Louisiana, too, is in the process of forming a reserve; Pew is working with scientists, allied organizations, and national, state, and local officials to help the state enter the NERR system. The Bayou State is “the country’s last coastal state without a reserve, and arguably the most threatened by climate change and sea level rise,” says Pew’s Wheatley. “The NERRS program is a great one for Pew to support, and one that fits in incredibly well with the goals we have to advance U.S. coastal conservation.”
Carol Kauffman is a staff writer for Trust.