Connecticut Seeks Public Comment on Plan for State’s First National Estuarine Research Reserve

52,000-acre site would include critical wildlife habitat, and some of Long Island Sound’s last undeveloped coastal areas

Connecticut Seeks Public Comment on Plan for State’s First National Estuarine Research Reserve
Joe Attwater, a teacher and naturalist with the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center in Old Lyme, Connecticut, works with children at the Jewett Preserve, in nearby Lyme.
Joe Attwater, a teacher and naturalist with the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center in Old Lyme, Connecticut, works with children at the Jewett Preserve, in nearby Lyme.
Heather Kordula for the Connecticut Audubon Society

Connecticut officials working to secure the state’s first National Estuarine Research Reserve have completed another substantial step in the designation process: creating a comprehensive management plan to detail how the site will be overseen and administered.

 

Created by Congress in the early 1970s as part of the Coastal Zone Management Act, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) supports research and stewardship of U.S. estuaries and other habitats in coastal and Great Lakes states and territories. Estuaries are vibrant but vulnerable areas where freshwater flowing from rivers and streams mixes with saltwater from the ocean; the Great Lakes are part of the system because many of their coastlines share characteristics with estuaries. If finalized, the new site would be the country’s 30th. Connecticut is one of only two ocean-bordering states without an NERRS reserve.

Local stakeholders and officials—led by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), University of Connecticut, Connecticut Sea Grant, and Connecticut Audubon Society—along with representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are accepting public comments on the plan and its environmental impact statement through Oct. 18. You can comment on the management plan or the proposed reserve via Pew’s action alert.

To become an NERRS site, each reserve must have a management plan that includes its goals, objectives, and strategies. Each plan describes how the site will carry out research, education, and training, and outlines administration, resource protection, public access, land acquisition, and more. NOAA must approve initial plans—and updates, which are required every five years—and periodically evaluate each reserve for its compliance with its plan and with federal requirements.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion emerge as priorities in Connecticut

Participants in stakeholder meetings on the Connecticut reserve management plan placed a priority on issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ), which participants felt could be met through staffing, projects, and programs. One area that appears to be particularly promising for DEIJ efforts is the site’s educational programs.

As the management plan notes, the population of the area around the proposed reserve is economically and culturally diverse. The plan details two DEIJ objectives: 1) develop the next generation of environmental stewards by providing opportunities to educators and students, particularly those from underserved communities and those who have borne the brunt of environmental injustices; and 2) promote environmental stewardship, literacy, and science-based management and decision-making.

Proposed site: State-owned properties, Long Island Sound, rivers, and bays

The preferred site of the proposed reserve encompasses about 52,000 acres in southeastern Connecticut, including: the Lord Cove Natural Area Preserve; Roger Tory Peterson Natural Area Preserve; the Bluff Point State Park, Complex and Coastal Reserve; Haley Farm State Park; Pine Island; and the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus. Waterways in the proposed site include parts of six rivers—the Connecticut, Thames, Lieutenant, Black Hall, Back, and Poquonnock—and portions of Long Island Sound, Fisher’s Island Sound, Baker Cove, Mumford Cove, and bays on Palmer Cove and Birch Plain Creek.

Site would protect critical wildlife habitat

At 410 miles, the Connecticut River is the longest tidal river in the northeastern U.S. and drains a 7.2-million-acre watershed. The river also has the most extensive fresh and brackish tidal wetland systems in the Northeast and is an important riverine migratory corridor for fish, providing open-water wintering habitat when many inland areas are frozen over.

More than 200 species of birds rely on the proposed reserve as a migratory stopover, overwintering, and nesting area. These include ospreys, piping plovers, and salt marsh sparrows, along with waterfowl such as the American black duck. In addition, the area supports smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, perch, and migrating shad—species sought by recreational and commercial fishermen—and Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act. 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, the state’s only native rabbit, are seen within the proposed site.

A great white egret flies over a section of the coast off Old Lyme, Connecticut, that is within the proposed site of Connecticut’s first National Estuarine Research Reserve
A great white egret flies over a section of the coast off Old Lyme, Connecticut, that is within the proposed site of Connecticut’s first National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Ray Uzanas

Idea for reserve dates back decades

Connecticut’s initial interest in a reserve began in the 1980s but picked up momentum in 2018, when then-Governor Dannel Malloy submitted a formal letter of nomination for the NERR site to NOAA. If NOAA approves the environmental impact statement and management plan, Connecticut officials anticipate the designation process will be complete in early 2022.

Pew supports the designation of this new reserve along Connecticut’s coast. Read more about our work to expand the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.

Tom Wheatley manages ocean conservation in the Gulf of Mexico for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.