Blumenthal shelves idea for Long Island Sound National Marine Sanctuary

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal has backed off a proposal to establish Long Island Sound as a National Marine Sanctuary, opting instead to join with the rest of the state's congressional delegation in pursuing other means of enhancing protection of the estuary.

One manifestation of the delegation's efforts was announced Saturday - the award of $1.96 million in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding to "preserve, protect and responsibly develop" the state's coastal resources and communities.

"The Long Island Sound is a national treasure supporting vital activities key to economic growth and job creation in the state," the members said in a joint statement. "As a delegation, we know that keeping these resources healthy strengthens the communities that rely on them and bolsters our shipping, shipbuilding, commercial fishing, aquaculture, and tourism industries. Joining with state and local leaders, we are committed to the common goal of protecting our coastal resources and we applaud the federal government's continued commitment to that goal through grants like this one."

Connecticut will use the grant to administer its coastal management program, supporting projects related to harbor management, dredging, and coastal storm response, according to the statement. It will also support marine planning projects including mapping contracts for the Sound.

Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Friday that his earlier proposal for the Sound to become the nation's 14th marine sanctuary, announced in February, met with a fundamental obstacle at the agency that would be in charge of the designation, the federal Department of Commerce, which includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In a May 8 letter to Blumenthal, former Commerce Secretary John Bryson said the sanctuary program is not accepting new candidates. On June 13, Blumenthal wrote to Rebecca Blank, Bryson's replacement, to inform her that he has concluded that "marine sanctuary designation right now is not the most appropriate means to ensure ... protection and achieve the critical environmental, health and economic goals" for the Sound, and would be "counterproductive at this point."

The sanctuary program, established in 1972 as the equivalent of the National Park System for undersea areas, includes areas such as the Stellwagen Bank of Massachusetts Bay and the Florida Keys.

Rather than undertake a potentially long and complicated effort to revive the list of candidates, Blumenthal said, he decided to take a different route.

"There are alternative means which would achieve the same goals," Blumenthal said. Pursing sanctuary status, he said, "would expend costly resources that would be better devoted to other efforts." In making the initial proposal, Blumenthal said industrial facilities recently proposed for the Sound such as the Broadwater Energy liquefied natural gas terminal and the Islander East pipeline highlight the need for enhanced protection and planning for the Sound.

On June 21, Blumenthal joined with U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Joe Courtney, Jim Himes, John Larson and Chris Murphy in a letter to Jane Lubchenco, the head of NOAA, supporting coastal and marine spatial planning for the Sound and asking the agency to "make available any obtainable funding for this effort."

They also informed Lubchenco that, along with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, they support the creation of a National Estuarine Research Reserve in the Sound.

Nationally, there are 28 such reserves. They operate as partnerships between NOAA and the states to protect marine areas for research, water quality monitoring, education and coastal stewardship. Connecticut and Louisiana are the only coastal states without any of these reserves, Blumenthal noted.

Marine spatial planning and establishment of the reserve, Blumenthal said, are tools readily available that would accomplish the same goal as sanctuary status: to "protect the Sound from overdevelopment and threats to its well-being."

Brian Thompson, director of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's Office of Long Island Sound Programs, said Connecticut has begun working with the four other coastal New England states on marine spatial planning, but that continued federal funding is needed.

The effort is the result of a federal directive to coastal states and seeks to identify offshore areas most suited to particular uses, as well as critical habitats, resources and economic interests that need protection. One of the main motivations, Thompson said, is interest in developing offshore wind farms and other energy infrastructure projects in marine waters.

Connecticut waters, while not being considered for wind farms, could see proposals for other energy infrastructure projects such as utility cables, he said.

"It's comparable to land-use planning, in that you identify areas as preferred or not for certain uses," Thompson said.

In addition to the New England regional planning, he said, the state is interested in undertaking a Long Island Sound-specific spatial planning project, possibly with the help of federal funds.

"It could be important and useful for making decisions about the Sound," Thompson said.

j.benson@theday.com

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