National Estuarine Reserve celebration set for May 21

An aeriel view of the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton, where the Connecticut National Estuarine Research Reserve will be headquartered.
An aeriel view of the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton, where the Connecticut National Estuarine Research Reserve will be headquartered. UConn photo

This article was originally published in UConn Today

By Stephanie Reitz, UConn Communications

The University of Connecticut is joining with several partners at the federal, state, and local levels to celebrate the establishment of 52,160 acres of Long Island Sound, adjacent marshes, and upland areas as the Connecticut National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR).

The area includes the lower Connecticut and Thames Rivers and several islands, state parks, and UConn’s Avery Point campus in Groton. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officially designated the NERR in January, making it the 30th such reserve in the country.

“This new research reserve advances the goals of the President’s America the Beautiful initiative, which commits to conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by the year 2030,” says NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D. “Working with our partners to protect this special part of Long Island Sound will foster new scientific collaborations and educational opportunities, and help Connecticut mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

UConn and its partners will host a designation ceremony for the NERR at the Avery Point campus on Saturday, May 21, at 11 a.m., behind the Lowell P. Weicker Jr. Marine Sciences Building. The campus will serve as the central location for the estuary’s administration, research activities, and education offices.

Speakers and guests at the May 21 event are expected to include national and state government leaders, representatives from UConn, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP), NOAA, the Connecticut Audubon Society, and others.

After the ceremony, guests will be invited to board a boat and tour a section of the reserve by water.

Estuaries are rich areas of brackish water and surrounding wetlands where freshwater meets the sea. Their waters are saltier than freshwater rivers but less so than the ocean, and the resulting ecosystem of life is unique. The Connecticut shoreline estuary now becomes part of the NERR network of coastal sites designated to protect and study estuarine systems.

“UConn is proud to partner with the many organizations and agencies who worked diligently together to establish this great resource along Connecticut’s shoreline,” says Pamir Alpay, UConn interim vice president for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

“The reserve not only presents extraordinary research opportunities for students and faculty, but also aligns with UConn’s values of sustainability and environmental stewardship,” Alpay says.

UConn and several other public and private partners in Connecticut have worked with NOAA to establish a reserve in the state. Connecticut Sea Grant and UConn’s Department of Marine Sciences have been instrumental in efforts on behalf of UConn, along with Connecticut DEEP, the Connecticut Audubon Society and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“We had a strong show of support from our local communities during the two-year designation process, and are grateful to the many people who participated in the series of 10 public meetings that informed the development of our management plan,” says Jamie Vaudrey, a UConn marine sciences professor and Connecticut NERR research coordinator.

The reserve will continue to encourage public involvement in all aspects of programming through outreach programs, volunteer opportunities, and invitations to advisory committees.

“DEEP has been pursuing a Connecticut NERR for quite some time, and we’re thrilled to have reached this important milestone thanks to the efforts of a tremendous group of partner organizations,” DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes says.

“We look forward to working with our partners and NERR staff on important efforts and programming such as exploring efforts to sustain coastal habitats in the face of sea level rise and providing more opportunities for school-aged students to participate in real-world scientific field work,” she adds. “By doing so, these incredible estuarine places can be sustained and continue to support vital ecological and human uses. Many thanks to our partners at NOAA for this important designation.”

Designation as a NERR does not fundamentally change access or use of the reserve, but ensures these special places are properly cared for by leveraging the existing rules in place for state parks, preserves, and waters of Connecticut.

In this fashion, people can still access public beaches and hike through areas such as Bluff Point State Park, as well as boat, fish, and shellfish in the waters along the coastline and the mouths of the rivers – all while benefiting from the long-term values these sites provide for environmental science and education.

“This will be a very interesting place for people of all ages, including scientists and lay persons, to come and learn in a beautiful outdoor setting,” says Sylvain De Guise, director for Connecticut Sea Grant, which is funded through NOAA, the state of Connecticut and UConn, and conducts outreach as a UConn Extension program.

For the estuary, NOAA will provide federal funds and Connecticut will match with state resources to support staff, research, and conservation. UConn and its partners will also coordinate educational and volunteer opportunities and share resources and research with other NERRs.

“This new reserve means Connecticut now has access to a nationwide system of science that demonstrates how coasts and estuaries are changing,” says Jennifer Browning, Director of Pew’s Conserving Marine Life in the U.S. project. “The NERR system shares lessons and advances best practices, enabling all 30 reserves to help combat climate change and increase ecosystem resilience at both the local and national level.”

A recent study commissioned by NOAA and Pew found the work done at estuaries has economic benefits in addition to the environmental, research, and educational benefits they offer their communities.

In its review of four of the 19 NERR sites that existed in 2021, the study conservatively estimated that together, they generate more than $165 million in annual revenue for their communities, including $56.4 million in wages paid for at least 1,762 jobs.

For instance, they can protect economically important habitats and ecosystems that are key to certain industries, which is of particular importance in Connecticut given the value of the shellfish industry that operates along the shoreline and elsewhere in the region.

The NERR will also offer great educational benefit for UConn and school systems throughout the shoreline because the reserve will be a living laboratory for marine science activities. It will provide opportunities for students and researchers to get their hands and feet in the water and salt marshes as they learn about critical habitats for birds, fish, and other types of marine life.

“We hope that, in addition to its research function, the reserve can serve as a focal point for educating teachers, UConn students, and local municipal officials about the ecosystem services provided by estuaries and the challenges they will face in the coming years,” says George McManus, UConn professor of marine sciences and interim manager of the reserve.

Connecticut Sea Grant explores parks, islands, and more of the places within the reserve in Wrack Lines magazine. The in-depth articles can be found in the issue here.