Officials unveil draft 'Blue Plan' to protect Long Island Sound

Madison — The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on Wednesday unveiled the Long Island Sound Blue Plan, which maps out wildlife habitats and human activity in order to protect the environment, and commercial and recreational uses, while fostering harmonious development on the Sound.

Huddled in a Hammonasset Beach State Park pavilion with the Sound as a backdrop, state officials, environmentalists and industry stakeholders said the draft plan balances conservation with economic benefits, protecting an area that serves as a vital habitat for marine life while contributing more than $9 billion to the regional economy annually.

The plan, which establishes use guidelines but no new regulations, is meant to be revised every five years, with annual public hearings, according to DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes and Connecticut Sea Grant Director Sylvain De Guise.

Nathan Frohling, director of coastal and marine initiatives for the Nature Conservancy, described the Sound as a vast “underwater wonderland” brimming with wildlife, ripe with commercial activity and owned by a public that wants to protect the Sound as a way of life along the coasts of Connecticut and New York. He noted that he's enjoyed many joyful days sailing with family and friends — memories he hopes to replicate for as long as he lives.

“If you’re a fisherman, or any user of Long Island Sound, you have the same hopes that Long Island Sound will be there in a way that you’ve known for your whole life,” Frohling said. “That’s what the Blue Plan is all about.”

Over the last few years, Connecticut Sea Grant has led efforts to inventory spaces in the Sound used by humans — commercial and recreational boating and fishing, ferry routes, pipeline locations — as well as ecologically important spaces — shellfish beds, cold-water corals, seal resting spots — by gathering science-based data from a range of sources and feedback from industries and environmental groups. The inventories then were compiled into dozens of interactive maps that can help scientists, developers, municipal planners, coastal residents and tourists.

A 15-member advisory committee spanning a range of sectors then helped create policy guidelines, including encouraging open communication among stakeholders, to reduce conflicts. Planners also called for maintaining unobstructed views from shore to shore; enhanced siting standards for wildlife, recreation or commercial areas; restricting or minimizing offshore industrial, commercial or residential structures; and ensuring development, preservation and use of the Sound is consistent with its natural resources.

“The Blue Plan is meant to protect what we care about and reduce conflicts in the future,” De Guise said. “Who could be against that?”

Currently in draft form, the plan was put in motion by the General Assembly in 2015. But Frohling said it also was partly inspired by Broadwater Energy’s abandoned plan to construct and operate a liquefied natural gas processing and supply facility in the middle of the Sound.

Frohling said Broadwater’s plan was a “wake-up call,” forcing many conservationists to recognize there was “no coordinated way to manage how this area was developed over time,” nor “a way to ensure that a collective public vision would be sustained.”

The Blue Plan marks the first time officials “put forth a framework to protect” habitats for fish, sea birds, seals, shellfish, underwater plants, boating, fishing and recreation, while providing “clarity for how new uses can be compatible with what we love,” Frohling said.

“This is great,” said John Sieviec, a commissioner with the Guilford Shellfish Commission, noting the plan’s maps would save area shellfishermen and kelp farmers “a lot of time."

"You get the information and go from there,” he said.

Dykes called it a “living plan” that “will likely change over time, and maps and supporting data will be updated accordingly.”

The draft plan’s unveiling kicked off a 90-day public comment period. Dykes encouraged anyone interested in protecting and enjoying the Sound to visit DEEP’s website, bit.ly/DEEPBlue. Comments can be submitted to deep.blueplanlis@ct.gov.

The plan, which cost more than $400,000, was funded primarily through the Long Island Sound Study/Long Island Sound Futures Fund, with supporting grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, the University of Connecticut, the Nature Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

In a statement, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound said many groups had “long advocated for cataloging the numerous resources and uses of Long Island Sound, from oystering to sailing to shipping, and developing a plan to safeguard them.”

Leah Lopez Schmalz, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound’s chief program officer and Blue Plan Advisory Council member, said, “Just a couple decades into this century, we have already faced many fights to keep the sound’s waters open to all and its coastal habitats protected from unwise development. The Blue Plan will protect traditional water uses and empower DEEP to spot and address potential conflicts between types of uses, and threats to fragile ecosystems.”

b.kail@theday.com

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