With a mixture of fresh water from rivers and saltwater from the ocean, Long Island Sound has always been an estuary of significance for the millions of people that live, work, and visit the Connecticut coastline. After years of tireless efforts from a community of organizations and volunteers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) echoed this recognition by officially designating the Connecticut National Estuarine Research Reserve as a marine protected area, and the country’s 30th National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). This designation will ensure that the 52,000 acre CTNERR, which encompass the areas where the Connecticut and Thames rivers flow into Long Island Sound to the east past Bluff Point State Park in Groton, CT, and offshore into Long Island Sound proper, will be protected for long-term research, environmental monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship.
This designation is cause for celebration for Mystic Aquarium because the goals of the CTNERRS mirror our mission: to inspire people to care for and protect our ocean planet through conservation, education, and research. As such, we were very active in the designation process. Beginning with the science, Dr. Peter Auster, Mystic Aquarium Senior Research Scientist, served as an expert on the site selection committee for the CTNERR. His decades of research, within the Sound, to understand the ecology of marine organisms and the dynamics in their distribution, abundance, and diversity across underwater landscapes, contributed to ensuring that the final site included unique habitats and species that were not found in other regional reserves. Furthermore, our conservation education team advised on the education and coastal stewardship aspects of the designation.
Each year hundreds of elementary and middle school students, often from distressed communities, join Aquarium educators to visit Long Island Sound to participate in field studies as part of our conservation education programming. Despite living just miles from the Sound, these programs are sometimes a student’s first trip to the coast and serve as an introduction to rocky shore, sandy beach, and salt marsh habitats. Getting their feet wet and muddy in the salt marsh as they follow the minnows through the ditches to the beach or conducting water quality studies to learn how the snails and crabs hiding in the rocky shore can be impacted by rising water temperatures or plummeting dissolved oxygen provide the basis of conversations that explore the connection between human actions and estuary health. Additional resources that will be available to the newly designated CTNERR will increase access and opportunities for the community to participate in these field-based educational experiences.
The CTNERRs designation will also advance Mystic Aquarium’s Ocean Ambassadors initiative, aimed at engaging thousands of community members in citizen science, stewardship, and conservation action that directly benefit the CTNERR region. The information gathered from citizen scientists-led water quality studies, marine debris removal events, horseshoe crab population studies, and amphibian sampling provide insight into the issues most impacting habitats and vulnerable species. Participation in habitat restoration and invasive species removal projects also mitigate some of these issues and restore habitat. These education, conservation, and research activities serve as a conduit for the community to gain a greater appreciation for the environment and to inspire individuals to become active environmental stewards.
We thank all of those who have contributed to the success of the designation and look forward to continuing to work with NOAA and the CTNERR’s staff on stewardship, research, training, and education efforts. Please join us in celebrating the CTNERR through participating in our Long Island Sound-based Ocean Ambassador programs. Now is the time to ensure that this vital resource and “living laboratory” is enjoyed and conserved for future generations.