Courtney highlights Sea Grant's work to help fishermen, shellfish farmers

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, center, D-2nd District, talks with Norman Bloom, right, of Norwalk and Jim Markow, president of the Noank Aquaculture Co-Operative, as oyster farmer David Lindenberger, left, sorts through oysters during a visit on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, in Noank.  The co-op, a community-owned and operated program that focuses on the cultivation of seed oysters and other shellfish, receives funding from the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, center, D-2nd District, talks with Norman Bloom, right, of Norwalk and Jim Markow, president of the Noank Aquaculture Co-Operative, as oyster farmer David Lindenberger, left, sorts through oysters during a visit on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, in Noank. The co-op, a community-owned and operated program that focuses on the cultivation of seed oysters and other shellfish, receives funding from the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Groton — With about 90 percent of the seafood consumed in this country coming from outside the United States, programs like Sea Grant offer a way to "move the needle" in changing that statistic by supporting producers, said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

Courtney visited the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative on Tuesday afternoon to highlight Sea Grant's role in providing tools for local fishermen and shellfish farmers. He pointed to the cooperative as one of the many successful operations that have benefited from the National Sea Grant College Program, which has 33 sites across the country.

Connecticut Sea Grant, located at the University of Connecticut-Avery Point, has helped communities with storm preparedness, held climate adaptation workshops and worked on issues with fishermen, among other initiatives.

Sea Grant "certainly does pave the way for us to have a brighter future," said Jim Markow, president of Noank Aquaculture Cooperative.

Courtney's visit comes as President Donald Trump's budget proposal submitted last month calls for the elimination of funding for the Sea Grant program, which is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The budget proposal reduces overall funding to NOAA by 18 percent.

Courtney said he and Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., spearheaded a bipartisan letter in support of Sea Grant — signed by almost 100 lawmakers — to the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations' Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies.

"Across the nation, thirty-three universities participate in the National Sea Grant Program — a federal-state partnership which provides critical services to a wide range of constituents in every coastal and Great Lakes state, and U.S. territories," the letter states in part. "Sea Grant contributes to making coastal communities more resilient while also aiding our aquaculture industries in navigating federal and state regulations. In this sense, Sea Grant serves as the coastal, marine-based equivalent of Agriculture Extension program."

The letter cites that the program "contributed to creating and sustaining 20,770 jobs and 2,903 businesses" and "contributed to $575 million in economic impact — nearly half of our nation’s $1.2 billion aquaculture economy."

During Courtney's visit on Tuesday, Markow said that southeastern Connecticut has turned out to be a "lucrative place" for growing oysters.

"Southeastern Connecticut never really had much oyster production, but since we got this hatchery operating here, we've been able to get oysters back into the environment where many, many years ago we had natural oysters," he said. "At this point, since we got the hatchery up and running, we've been putting oysters back on the bottom and we're starting to see natural recruitment. Our water quality is excellent here, there's been a lot of help with the sewage treatment plant getting upgraded, so as far as places to grow oysters, this has certainly turned out to be a lucrative place."

He pointed to Sea Grant's efforts from water testing to research that found that oyster cages did not hurt eel grass, enabling regulations to be changed.

Sylvain De Guise, director of Connecticut Sea Grant, said that the elimination of the Connecticut Sea Grant program would mean the loss of 13 staff jobs.

He said Sea Grant, whose mission is to integrate research, outreach and education, conducts applied research on topics relevant to each state. In Connecticut, shellfish aquaculture is very important, so the Connecticut Sea Grant has focused much of its efforts on that.

"We have the ability to identify priorities and every four years we have a strategic plan and we work really hard to reach out to the community to identify what their needs are," De Guise said.

Beth Sullivan, a volunteer steward for the Avalonia Land Conservancy, said that her job as a land steward "took on a different level" after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. She said she is able to call Sea Grant for advice, such as on how to manage land for resiliency and protect the coastal landscape.

She added that the program has supported conferences to provide information on coastal resiliency for town planners, for land conservancy planners, builders, developers and others.

Other speakers on Tuesday highlighted Sea Grant's support of shellfishing.

"Sea Grant has always been a tremendous supporter of our industry and our operation, and it would really be a shame to lose such an asset," said Jimmy Bloom, who owns and operates Norm Bloom and Son with his father in the Norwalk area.

Bloom added that Sea Grant "is a good way to open the door for new opportunities," whether through research, new products and the development of how to farm new species. For example, he said that Sea Grant and the University of Connecticut were a "big help" in providing the opportunity to experiment with growing kelp in Long Island Sound.

Paul Anderson, a research scientist at Mystic Aquarium, said that Sea Grant provided a pilot grant to start a joint aquaculture research partnership with Mystic Aquarium and the Marine Science Magnet School in Groton. He said that allowed additional funding to be obtained from Sea World, so the program could be made even better.

"I'm really thankful for Connecticut Sea Grant and their mission to conserve our coastal resources as well as to develop industries that use our coastal resources sustainably," Anderson said.

Day Staff Writer Judy Benson contributed to this report. 

k.drelich@theday.com

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