Connecticut Reserve Would Expand National System Protecting Estuaries

NOAA approval is key step toward protecting site with unique ecosystems and hundreds of species

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Connecticut Reserve Would Expand National System Protecting Estuaries
Kids birdwatching
Children peer out at a marsh in Rocky Neck State Park, Connecticut, near the proposed site of the state’s first National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Heather Kordula for the Connecticut Audubon Society

John Forbis has never doubted the need to preserve the vibrant coastal habitat around his home on the Connecticut River, but he nonetheless gets a reminder every summer when his grandson, Max, arrives for an extended visit.

“He’s just fallen in love with the place,” Forbis said of 10-year-old Max, who lives the rest of the year in Laguna Beach, California. “He can canoe, he can kayak, but basically what he’s enjoying is the result of these wetlands. It’s a phenomenal place for grandchildren, and a place to educate young people.”

Forbis is a longtime advocate for preserving the ecosystems fed by the ebb and flow between Long Island Sound and the river, what the Connecticut Audubon Society calls a “vast area of extraordinarily high-quality habitat.”

The lower Connecticut River’s distinct biological diversity is the one of the main reasons that Connecticut officials proposed it as the 30th site in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), along with locations in Groton, the mouth of the Thames River, and the stretch of Long Island Sound that connects them. On April 23, state officials announced that they received approval of Connecticut’s proposed site from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which partners with coastal state and territorial governments to administer and manage the network. The next phase will be a state-driven, public process to develop an environmental impact statement and management plan for the site.

Created by Congress in the early 1970s as part of the Coastal Zone Management Act, the reserve system supports research and stewardship of U.S. estuaries, which are vibrant but vulnerable areas along the  coasts where fresh water flowing from rivers and streams mixes with salt water from the ocean.. Estuaries create rich habitats that sustain marine life, boost coastal economies, and can serve as important buffers from storms and sea level rise. The 29 current NERRS reserves are in 24 states and territories. The newly proposed site would be the first in Connecticut.

NOAA has given its blessing to the proposed Connecticut site nomination, which was developed by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP), the University of Connecticut, Connecticut Sea Grant, and representatives of other organizations, along with stakeholder engagement and public comment.

Critical site for wildlife

The proposed site is used by hundreds of species of birds as a migratory stopover, overwintering, and nesting ground area. Depending on the season, species including osprey, piping plovers, and salt marsh sparrows can be found here.

In addition, the area supports smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, perch, and migrating shad—species sought by recreation and commercial fishermen. The Connecticut River, which feeds fresh water into the estuary, is home to endangered species such as the Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon. In total, nearly 50 species listed under the Connecticut Endangered Species Act, as well as the popular and previously at-risk New England cottontail rabbit, live, feed, breed, or stop over in the proposed site.

The site boasts diverse habitats, including offshore hard-bottom reefs formed by rocks and populated by corals; coastal forests, bluffs, and barrier beaches; and Connecticut River tidal marshes.

Piping Plover
The proposed site is home to the piping plover, a sparrow-size shorebird listed as threatened in the Northeast—and endangered in the Great Lakes—due to habitat degradation.
The Connecticut Audubon Society

A win for Connecticut

The 29 existing reserves cover 1.3 million acres and attract more than 500,000 visitors annually. According to the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association, the system in total provides an estimated $26 billion in storm protection annually.

According to CT DEEP, establishing a NERRS site in the state would:

Broad support—and next steps toward approval

Patrick Comins
Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society
Scott Kruitbosch

A cross-section of organizations and individuals encouraged NOAA to approve the site, including the Connecticut River Conservancy; Lowell Weicker, a former Connecticut governor, congressman, and U.S. senator; and the Connecticut Audubon Society. CT DEEP will be the lead organization in developing the environmental impact statement and site management plan, both of which will then be open for public comment before being reviewed by the secretary of commerce, who oversees NOAA and is responsible for formally designating reserves. Once the site is designated, the University of Connecticut will take over as the lead managing organization, in partnership with CT DEEP and others.

“You don’t count your plovers before they’re fledged, but everything we’ve heard has been quite positive so far,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society. “It’s really an amazing place, and to have more focus on it is so exciting.”

Ted Morton is a director at The Pew Charitable Trusts focused on federal efforts to protect ocean life and coastal habitats.

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