Niantic shellfishing hatchery must be done right

The Niantic River has long been well managed by the state of Connecticut, Waterford and East Lyme as a public asset with both recreational and commercial uses. A recent attempt to establish a commercial shellfishing hatchery in the south end of the river, near the main boat channel, was not well planned and it was right for the local shellfish commission to rescind its support.

There will no doubt be new efforts to expand commercial shellfishing in the river. Before that process begins, our community should agree on some basic standards.

Commercial shellfishing in the Niantic River and Niantic Bay are consistent with the region’s maritime history, but unlike earlier periods, we now possess a better understanding of how to ensure compatibility with other uses.

The best way to gain support for any new enterprise is to seek community input. We encourage all local, state and federal agencies with jurisdiction over the Niantic River to properly notice meetings during the approval process for any new project. We likewise encourage any businesses proposing new commercial operations in the river to seek public input before proceeding.

No one who lives near, works on, or owns property along the Niantic River is seeking to prohibit legitimate use of the waterway, but all have a right to ask that any new use not infringe unfairly on the rights of others, harm the environment, or make the river less safe.

Both Waterford and East Lyme have existing management plans for the Niantic River. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers also have well established standards for commercial development in environmentally sensitive areas. It is fair to ask that any proposed commercial project adhere to those plans and standards.

This means any businesses proposing new commercial operations should be required to meet the same standards and requirements for development that all land owners with riparian rights to the waterway have to meet. Government authorities should not grant exceptions to the rules to accommodate a proposed project, unless the public at large approves the exceptions following a thorough and open process.

The Niantic River is a center of recreational boating in Connecticut. Throughout the summer, hundreds of pleasure boats are permanently docked at 13 different marinas and along properties adjacent to the river. Others access the river and Long Island Sound using public boat launches. Many more use the river, outside the main boat channels, to jet-ski or kayak. For this reason, public safety on the water must be a top concern of regulatory agencies reviewing plans for commercial shellfishing.

The recently rejected project would have removed nearly 6.5 acres of the river from public use and would have specifically denied access to small craft, because of the cages and other equipment planned for installation close to the waterline. The project would have presented a safety hazard during the summer months. As new proposals are considered, safety must be a top concern.

The Niantic River is a scenic waterway. Its location and its status as a center of recreational boating help define the character of the Connecticut shoreline. Some have minimized the concerns of business owners in the area who want to have a say in further commercial development. Commercial use of the river is part of its character, but that does not mean we should proceed with any or all development regardless of long-term impact.

Decisions we make today about the development in the Niantic River will set a precedent for the future and may not be reversible. There is nothing wrong in taking time to make the right decisions and to do so in a way that is consistent with community standards set by local commissions, state and federal regulators.

Gary D. Smith is the owner of The Point Marina in Mago Point and is a member of the Mago Point Business Association and the Niantic River Advocacy Coalition.



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