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DEEP, UConn, Sea Grant announce potential National Estuarine Research Reserve spot

Groton — Chris Bowser, an education coordinator with the Hudson River Estuary Program, inspired a few humble hands to be raised in a packed Avery Point auditorium Tuesday when he asked who'd be willing to admit they hadn't a clue what the word "estuarine" meant.

But when Bowser asked, "Who eats fish, ever?" nearly the whole crowd quickly complied.

"The vast majority of our commercial fishing species rely at some point in their lifecycle on an estuary," Bowser said, noting estuaries are where a river meets the sea, creating a "beautiful blend" of fresh water and salt water. "If you like seafood, you love estuaries, and you love to make sure that everybody loves estuaries."

Bowser was one of several educators, scientists and state officials who described the National Estuarine Research Reserve and its potential research, educational and stewardship benefits if Connecticut completes a multi-year effort to join NERR, a network of 29 reserves across the U.S. and territories.

Almost 100 people gathered at Avery Point to hear the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's update on efforts to create a reserve in Connecticut, one of only two salt-water states in the country without a designated NERR site.

Partnering with nonprofits, environmental groups, local schools and research efforts, NERR provides systemwide monitoring, coastal training and a K-12 estuarine education program to give students a flavor of the diverse species in their local areas, and helps scientists and educators collect and share data throughout the network to improve awareness of water quality, habitats and climate change.

After two years of scientists and volunteers researching estuary sites in Connecticut, DEEP plans to propose a hybrid site including the Lord Cove Wildlife Management Area and Great Island Wildlife Management Area in Old Lyme; Bluff Point State Park, Coastal Reserve and Natural Area Preserve and Haley Farm State Park in Groton; and public trust portions of bodies of water in the lower Connecticut River, Thames River and Mystic areas, according to UConn and Connecticut Sea Grant.

Questions and comments from the crowd focused on whether the potential reserve would create any new regulations impacting Connecticut's commercial or recreational activity in the designated areas.

State officials — and Bowser and leaders from other NERR sites — were adamant that creating a reserve involves no new regulations.

Multiple commercial fishermen urged DEEP to reach out for more input than the agency has sought in the past. Others urged DEEP to consider including more upland spaces in the reserve to account for healthier watersheds and greater awareness of water quality, and to include more detailed maps of the proposed areas so as not to worry private landowners.

Kevin O'Brien of DEEP said NERR works within the existing framework of state regulations, arguing that if Connecticut joins NERR "it would not change anything" when it comes to permitting for commercial activity, recreational boating or commercial transportation regulations.

Molly Jacobs of Project Oceanology, said Project O was "super excited to partner" with NERR, "but also a little nervous about how it could impact us."

Bowser and Erica Seiden of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association noted that at all NERR reserves, a market analysis is performed to review schools, facilities and local nonprofits to see what's being provided and what could be added to benefit, not harm, local efforts.

O'Brien said NERR is a state-federal partnership, with the state taking the reins in management, reserve staffing and program implementation and the federal government providing policy and program guidance and technical assistance. Total funding for NERR in fiscal year 2018 was $25 million, including $690,000 for operations and management of each reserve. The federal government provides 70 percent of the funding and states match 30 percent, according to DEEP.

O'Brien said a NERR reserve in Connecticut would complement and add national resources and expertise to research and educational efforts already underway, ranging from the Connecticut Coastal Management Program, the Connecticut Sea Grant, and Project O. For now, O'Brien said DEEP Marine Headquarters in Old Lyme and Avery Point could serve as central locations for managing and staffing the Connecticut reserve, but other locations could be on the table in the future.

Another benefit, he said, is that reserves attract more than a half-million visitors and educate about 85,000 students and 3,200 teachers. Reserve-based science and technical support also helps municipal leaders in 2,500 communities and 570 businesses make decisions, O'Brien said.

By December, DEEP will send the reserve nomination to NOAA, which may request additional information or suggest changes to the reserve boundaries. The governor then submits a letter to the NOAA administrator identifying the proposed site for NOAA's review.

If NOAA accepts the nomination, it will then embark on a potentially two-year process to complete an environmental impact statement and review the state's draft management plan. The state will also hold additional public meetings and provide opportunities for public comment.

b.kail@theday.com

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