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Time running out in legislature to address environmental issues along shoreline

Two actions supported by state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, that carry local ecological implications may soon be heard in the General Assembly.

Pending legislation meant to help protect and develop eelgrass could be called in the state legislature during the next three weeks, while Somers plans to propose an amendment on an environmental bill that would require a mitigation fund to be included in any future wind energy deals made by the state.

Somers and Save the Sound's Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucey noted that eelgrass beds have declined precipitously, inviting the introduction of Senate Bill 242, An Act Establishing a Working Group on the Restoration of Eelgrass.

The bill passed out of the Environment Committee last month with a joint favorable report. The report said the bill is meant to "establish a working group to develop strategies for the restoration of eelgrass along the state's shoreline. Eelgrass is an important fish habitat that has declined markedly."

"Eelgrass provides perfect bedding for tiny organisms and fish, but there are very few eelgrass beds left," Somers said. "We need to dedicate resources and study what Connecticut can do to bring it back."

Lucey said Thursday that in the region there is currently eelgrass around Fisher's Island and the Little Dumpling Islands off the coast of Groton.

"There's patches of it around Plum Island all the way into Stonington and Mystic, and down into Niantic as well," Lucey added. He also echoed Somers comments, saying eelgrass needs to be "more than maintained ... It needs to be replaced."

"We have about 10 years left, in researchers' opinions, to do something radical to save eelgrass in Long Island Sound," Lucey said. "The thing that allows eelgrass to hold on is the regular flushing of cooler ocean water, but that water is warming up."

Lucey said the state also needs to keep water in the Sound clean so as to allow light to penetrate and get to the eelgrass.

"As the Sound gets hotter, we need to increase our work on keeping it clean. Once the water gets warmer, that pollution can have a worsening effect because of the heat," Lucey said.

Somers and Lucey would like scientists and local experts to come together, look at funding opportunities, try out new methods, "then maybe we can save this problem," Lucey said.

One idea he's heard floated, Lucey said, would involve planting eelgrass seeds from warmer water areas that would be resilient to successful use in Long Island Sound, though this idea has yet to be vetted.

The legislature is entering its final three weeks of the short session with a slate of bills still on its wish list, as well as ongoing budget negotiations, and it's of course possible some bills are overlooked.

Mitigation fund

It's Somers' fourth year of putting in legislation that would include a mitigation fund in any future wind energy deals with the state.

"It would be a certain dollar amount set aside in case these wind farms displace our commercial fishermen or we find that it affects certain mammals or birds, whether birds' migratory paths change or the windmills cut them up, or the windmills change the pattern of how the whales move along the coast, there would be money set aside to offset that," Somers said. "The fund could be used to create habitats or nesting areas for birds to go to, or, if you had fishermen who could no longer fish in the area, or their gear got caught up, they could tap into this fund."

Local fishermen have had issues getting wind developers to listen to their concerns in the past. For more than three decades, Stonington Town Dock fishermen and their counterparts across the Northeast have struggled to stay afloat in the face of strict regulations designed to rebuild depleted stocks of cod, flounder and other species. Offshore wind power has presented another challenge.

The offshore wind industry was jump-started by the Biden administration with a plan to have offshore wind farms producing 30 gigawatts of energy — enough to power 10 million homes — by 2030. The planned 62-turbine Vineyard Wind I project off the coast of Martha's Vineyard received federal approval last year.

Somers' amendment would mimic a bill introduced in 2020 that would "compensate commercial fishermen for lost revenues associated with the effects of certain offshore wind energy projects and require disclosure of the contract and associated documents for such project," according to the bill summary.

Somers noted that other states have similar mitigation funds. She said fishermen's concerns are being ignored by federal officials working to lease massive tracts of ocean bottom off the Northeast coast to wind power companies. Some of those tracts of bottom also happen to be in areas where fishing boats land their catches and transit.

Lucey said Save the Sound is also in favor of a mitigation fund.

"Other states have worked out mitigation packages with the wind companies and Connecticut has yet to do that," he said. "We're all for the wind farms coming in and replacing fossil fuels for climate change and the jobs created in Connecticut, but we really want to make sure the benefits to that and the impact on wildlife that may occur are properly accounted for."

s.spinella@theday.com

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