By Cheyenne Ellis
With bodies encased in armored scales, sturgeon have been circling the ocean since the Triassic period (248-200 million years ago). These hardy fish have survived mass extinctions, falling meteorites, and even an ice age, only to meet their demise over 200 million years later at the hands of one single species—humans.
Currently, of the 27 known species of sturgeon, up to 85 percent of them are classified at least as threatened; 63 percent are classified as critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Long Island Sound has two native species of sturgeon—the Atlantic and the shortnose—which are listed as endangered both federally and locally. One of the fish, the Atlantic sturgeon, migrates from the Atlantic Ocean to Long Island Sound and to local rivers when they are ready to breed, while the other, the shortnose sturgeon, live their lives almost entirely within several of Connecticut’s largest rivers.
A team of researchers from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) first began tracking the movement of shortnose sturgeon using a catch and release tactic in the late 1980s, with visual tags attached to the sturgeon’s dorsal fins. They first began using acoustic telemetry in 2003. When beginning the research, scientists believed that Atlantic sturgeon no longer spawned in Connecticut rivers, but soon into their shortnose sturgeon findings, Tom Savoy, a fisheries biologist with CT DEEP, made an interesting discovery.
“Very early on we began to notice that we were collecting the occasional Atlantic sturgeon,” said Savoy. “That made us wonder if maybe the [Atlantic sturgeon] aren’t all gone…Maybe there’s still a few hanging around.” That proved to be the case. Many adult Atlantic sturgeon were located throughout the years, but for a while, young could not be found. Finally, in 2014, the first recorded young Atlantic sturgeon was born in the Connecticut River, reappearing after having been virtually extinct from the area for decades.
That proved to be the case. Savoy sought out a permit to work with both species and has since been doing yearly monitoring to better learn the habits and patterns of Connecticut’s sturgeon.
Operations typically move slowly: state regulations indicate how many sturgeon can be studied each year, which usually falls between 10-20 fish. Each individual can only undergo one procedure (such as a tracker placement or an age check) to help prevent unintended harm to the fish. For that reason, each year of data is so critical for the long-term goals of the study. With Atlantic sturgeon only returning to breed once every 3-5 years, a single lost year could potentially throw off the understanding of the migrational patterns of certain sturgeon for up to a decade. Additionally, losing one year of data would mean the loss of 20 or so additional test subjects and the opportunity to perform additional research on the captured sturgeon. Numerous test subjects and a consistent stream of data are essential in order to find an accurate population count.
With the project’s current funding expiring earlier this year, the Long Island Sound Study stepped in to cover the next year of expenses, which totaled around $100,950. The interim funding will allow the CT DEEP team to continue buying and installing acoustic monitoring trackers over the next year, while they reapply for long-term grants. Though Atlantic sturgeon have already completed their migration for the year, the funding will also help support the year-round monitoring of shortnose sturgeon in the river.
(click dates to advance timeline)
Drawing of a shortnose sturgeon. Credit: Pixnio.
Sturgeon evolved from other Acipenseriform fish.
Colonial Jamestown in 1614. Credit: Wikipedia.
Colonists arrive in Jamestown and begin using sturgeon as a food source.
A model of what a colonial-era ship would have looked like. Credit: Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
Food markets were established and sturgeon meat was no longer required. Sturgeon were killed to make room for large ships.
The price of sturgeon caviar has increased as they became more endangered. Credit: Wikipedia.
Sturgeon caviar was discovered to be extremely profitable and the industry exploded. Sturgeon populations began to drastically decrease.
When shortnose sturgeon were listed, regulations on fishing and harvesting caviar were lifted. Credit: Flickr.
Shortnose sturgeon were listed as federally endangered on March 11, 1967 (pre-dating the Endangered Species Act).
Connecticut River Estuary at Lord Cove. Credit: Cheyenne Ellis.
Sturgeon populations reached an all-time low. Atlantic sturgeon were considered virtually extinct from the Connecticut River.
Atlantic sturgeon at the Aquarium du Québec. Credit: Wikipedia.
Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon begin to show gradual signs of recovery, as more fish continue to be sighted.
The first-ever Connecticut River born Atlantic sturgeon hatchling. The discovery was made by CT DEEP biologists in May of 2014. Credit: Tom Savoy (CT DEEP).
The first Connecticut River-born juvenile Atlantic sturgeon is found in the river by CT DEEP biologists.
Though exact population numbers are not clear, colonial-era writings tell of sturgeon so plentiful you could “walk across their backs,” or find your boat blocked by masses of sturgeon—Savoy reckons the number was probably in the millions throughout the East Coast. But what was once an abundant fish population in Connecticut rivers had dwindled so low by the 20th century that, until recently, they were considered virtually extinct from the area. Some studies estimate that there are currently fewer than 1,600 shortnose sturgeon in the Connecticut River, with even less Atlantic sturgeon visiting the river. Unfortunately, the reason for their decline is largely due to overfishing. Though few anglers have seen sturgeon in local waters, those who do catch a glimpse of their bony, prehistoric appearance can immediately put a name to the fish. Their unique appearance and large size has made them the ultimate catch for centuries. Atlantic sturgeon have been known to grow up to 16 feet in length and can weigh anywhere from 400-800 pounds.
Early colonists and indigenous communities in the Northeast were well acquainted with Atlantic sturgeon—in fact, they depended on them. The return of sturgeon upriver each spring provided heaps of protein after long, cold winters with scarce food availability. As the colonies became more established and developed fishing industries, these same fish that had once sustained them began to be seen as a nuisance, breaking fishing equipment and preventing the capture of the smaller target species. Captured sturgeon were often slaughtered en masse, seen as being nothing more than a hindrance to boats trying to navigate the rivers. This would continue until the mid-1800s, when a profitable discovery proved even more tragic for sturgeon.
Sturgeon caviar, which came to be known as “black gold,” became one of the most highly-sought delicacies in Europe. With the initial abundance of sturgeon in the rivers and the high costs Europeans were willing to pay for roe, the caviar industry took off exponentially—the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that at its peak, the East Coast harvested 7 million pounds of sturgeon in one year alone. But this business venture would prove to be short-lived. Over the next few decades, sturgeon harvest amounts were already on the decline (regardless of the unrelenting demand for caviar). Just one hundred years later, sturgeon harvest had decreased from 7 million pounds (which only accounts for the East Coast’s harvest) to a mere 400 pounds for the entire United States.
As their decline became more apparent over time, many species of sturgeon were gradually added to endangered species lists across the country. Shortnose sturgeon were listed as endangered in 1967, predating the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Fishing regulations have greatly helped sturgeon populations, but recovery has still proved difficult. Spawning efforts are often disrupted by the presence of dams along the river, as well as other anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss, climate change, and water pollution. Sturgeon breeding habits do not make the process any easier. Sturgeon can live up to 100 years old and some species do not reach sexual maturity until they are around 20 years old. Certain types of sturgeon, like the Atlantic, only return to their natal river to spawn every 3-5 years and, of the million or so eggs they lay at a time, very few individuals survive to adulthood.
Besides the extensive historical and cultural significance of sturgeon, these ancient fish are also very important to the ecosystem. For starters, they make incredible indicators of river health and water quality. Individuals may have lived through up to a century of environmental change, making their bodies rich sources of information. Sturgeon feed off of bottom-dwelling organisms like snails, mollusks, and small fish. In turn, their waste and eggs provide sources of nutrients for other aquatic organisms. The complete feeding and ecological habits of these fish are not fully understood because state regulations combined with the sturgeon’s own elusiveness make it difficult for these creatures to be studied.
Listening for Sturgeon: How Acoustic Telemetry Transformed Research
CT DEEP Fisheries Division biologists, including Savoy, Deb Pacileo, and Jacque Benway, are determined to learn as much about sturgeon as they can. To do this, they use an efficient catch and release monitoring system called acoustic telemetry. An acoustic transmitter is attached to an individual specimen during the capture part of the process and is released back into the water. Then, an acoustic receiver is placed in the water which can pick up the unique sound made by an individual transmitter and identify the specimen, as well their approximate location.
Acoustic telemetry technology first originated in the mid-1950s. Prior to this, scientists could only use bands or markers that would allow them to easily identify specimen that they have seen before. CT DEEP began their research using acoustic telemetry, but the process was still rather labor intensive. Instead of having an anchored-down receiver in the water as they do now, a researcher had to hold a smaller receiver in the water from a boat and audibly listen for transmitters. The new receivers, which are still in the process of being purchased and installed throughout the Sound, are able to pick up unique sounds all day long that are up to half a mile away, allowing for more accurate data.
The data collected from acoustic telemetry allows the team to make estimates about the population size. Using the number of tagged sturgeon versus the number of untagged ones they come across, scientists can wager a guess at population size and pick up on any notable changes from prior years.
Sturgeon monitoring is very much a team effort: Atlantic sturgeon that Savoy placed a tracker on have been picked up by receivers as far away as the coastal waters of South Carolina. This information allows him to not only monitor the time and location of their spawning cycles, but also track their migrational patterns while they are at sea.
“The Atlantic sturgeon can be out in the ocean for 10-20 years before they come back to the river,” said Savoy. “By having people up and down the East coast, we can all help each other out.”
The team is not only interested in tracking the sturgeon. Of the few dozen sturgeon they are allowed to catch each year, several are studied for other characteristics rather than receiving a tracker. Recently, sturgeon have been examined to determine their age, sex, and feeding habits.
Just as others are willing to aid in the sturgeon monitoring efforts, CT DEEP is more than willing to use their acoustic telemetry receivers to collect data for other organizations using the same tracking system. Any at-risk species who have been tagged for other studies such as sea turtles, sharks, American shad, black sea bass, striped bass, and even marine mammals, are monitored by these receivers. This information is uploaded to the shared online database called MATOS (Mid-Atlantic Acoustic Telemetry Observation System), which can then be examined by researchers across the country and shared with global tracking systems.
Sturgeon in the Future
We know so much about the role of sturgeon throughout human history, but what about their role in our future?
There is reason to be hopeful—many species of sturgeon, including the Atlantic, have began making appearances in places they were long thought to have disappeared from. This is likely due to fishing restrictions, dam removals, and an increased water quality. If regulations continue to be enforced and restoration efforts continue, those at CT DEEP believe that it may be possible for sturgeon populations to recover.
CT DEEP scientists plan to keep tracking sturgeon for as long as they are able to. Savoy hopes to continue his research on sturgeons by examining other variables including the effect of contaminant loads on sturgeon.
“We know that there’s a lot of human endocrines in the water, so we need to find out if these are impacting [sturgeon],” said Savoy. Studies on other fish have shown impacts on egg fertility and sex organs.
Additionally, CT DEEP is planning to launch an app which will allow the public to easily report any dead sturgeon that they may happen across on the water. Because of limits on the number of sturgeon that can be studied each year, collecting these remains give them the opportunity to perform more studies, as well as keep track of locations where the sturgeon were found.
Sturgeon have truly survived more natural disasters than almost any other species on this planet. Even when they are seemingly on the brink of extinction, they manage to pop back into the water; survival is in their very DNA. It is this innate resilience that is our greatest hope when it comes to helping this ancient species recover and swim back into our waterways.
In the 40 years that Tom Savoy has been researching sturgeon, he has encountered one of the same fish over 10 different times. Another was recently seen again after being tagged 29 years earlier! To learn more about sturgeon and his study, please check out the “Sturgeon: Connecticut’s Living Dinosaur” story map, made by CT DEEP.
Plastics first emerged during the early-to-mid-twentieth century as a much-desired alternative to scarcely available natural resources. Since then, these synthetic materials have permeated our environment, including places we never intended such as the waters of the Long Island Sound.
In addition to large floating pieces of plastics, tiny broken-down particles called microplastics have also infiltrated our waterways. In many recent studies, bivalve mollusks (i.e., oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops) have been used in attempts to quantify microplastic pollution levels, but some researchers including Evan Ward and Sandra Shumway, marine scientists at the University of Connecticut, have raised concerns about their accuracy. Bivalves are selective particle feeders; in other words, they are picky eaters and may not consume all the microplastics to which they are exposed.
“What this means is they capture a lot of different particles, but don’t ingest them all,” said Ward, Professor and Head of the Marine Science Department at the University of Connecticut in Groton. “If you just take a bivalve out of the environment and look at what’s in there, you’re going to find microplastics, but it’s not going to tell you much about the microplastic levels in the environment.”
In their upcoming study, which has been awarded $301,150 by the Long Island Sound Study with $150,575 matching funds, Ward, Shumway, and their team will evaluate the effectiveness of two new potential bioindicators, Crepidula fornicata (also called slipper snails) and Mogula manhattensis (also called sea squirts or sea grapes), in quantifying microplastic distribution, to determine if they are an improvement over bivalves.
Measuring concentration levels with tunicates and slipper snails
Ward and Shumway have opted to test the suitability of slipper snails and tunicates based on their previous research in 2019 which showed that these species, unlike bivalves, are indiscriminate suspension feeders, meaning they filter in all particles around them and do not have the ability to selectively reject particles.
“The only time you see tunicates reject material back out of their mouth is when the concentration of particles gets really high,” said Ward. It is the same deal with slipper snails—while they can mass-reject particles, they cannot individually sort out specific particles while eating.
The research, which is set to begin in the late summer of 2021, will test the viability of these organisms in both a lab and field setting, where the investigators will be heading into the Sound to find locations where both of the suspension feeders live in the same relative area.
If the research shows that tunicates or slipper snails are good monitors for microplastics, future research and monitoring efforts could focus on them instead of bivalves, hopefully getting more accurate data from their stomach contents.
In the lab, the team will expose the snails and tunicates to microplastics at a level similar to that which they recorded in their previous studies of microplastic distribution in the Long Island Sound. They will measure the feces, pseudofeces (particles that are spit out prior to ingestion), and the tissues which will help them to determine the gut retention time and the proportion of microplastics ingested. Knowing this information will potentially make it possible to measure microplastic pollution.
Are microplastics harmful to shellfish? To us?
Research suggests that microplastics, at the current concentration levels, have no harmful effects on shellfish, or the humans who eat them.
While there are a few studies that do note effects from microplastics, Ward cautions they may not have the most realistic lab conditions. His previous research has found microplastic concentration levels to be around one particle per liter in Long Island Sound, but the literature suggesting that shellfish may be impacted by microplastics often have concentration levels in the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. “There’s a real disconnect between laboratory studies that are using these really unrealistic concentrations and what the animals are being exposed to currently [in the natural environment],” said Ward.
That is not to say that shellfish are in the clear—they are already facing a multitude of threats, both anthropogenic and natural in origin.
“One major threat to commercially important species of shellfish is disease,” said Shumway, Research Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Connecticut who is also currently an Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Shellfish Research. “Warming seawater will also impact species in different geographic regions, and in some cases may result in the movement of species ranges.”
Without seeing drastic action to reduce plastic usage and an improvement in waste disposal and recycling efforts, National Geographic predicts that plastic concentration levels in the ocean could triple by the year 2040. Could we potentially get to a point where the microplastic concentration is high enough to start seeing effects? Ward believes it is certainly possible and for that reason, focusing on prevention methods now, before we have reached that threshold, is of the utmost importance.
How You Can Help
The creation of plastics has bettered our lives—there is no question about that. Disposable plastics have revolutionized the modern medical industry. Plastic polymers are sturdy, plentiful, and moldable. Without them, many simple objects we take for granted such as chairs, toothbrushes, and even combs, would look very different. Many would not be able to afford those things at all without the cheap price tags that often accompany plastic. So how did something with so many benefits also become something of such concern?
Single-use plastics took off shortly after the introduction of plastic in the early twentieth century, for no reasons other than they were cheap to use and easy to throw out afterwards. Once a disposable object was discarded, it was forgotten. Companies were profiting and their customers were happy. Yet none of those plastics really disappeared—they have continued to sit in our landfills and oceans for decades, breaking into smaller pieces, but never really breaking down. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that it can take anywhere from 20-500 years for plastic to fully decompose, with most objects trending towards hundreds of years.
Lowering the influx of ocean plastics will not only immediately benefit wildlife, but will also help lower the concentration of microplastic particles in the future. While widespread policy changes such as the Connecticut 2019 plastic bag ban have helped eliminate some pollution, we still have much further to go. Try taking some of these steps to reduce your individual plastic waste:
Ward and Shumway believe developing an awareness about how much plastic we use, and how much plastic is around us, is an important first step. They challenge everyone to start paying attention to the types of plastic they see while driving on the highway.
“If we could at least cut back on those, I think that would do a lot,” Ward said.
With single-use plastics being the largest and most preventable source of plastic pollution, targeting these makes the most sense for reducing marine plastic debris and limiting future microplastic pollution. To emphasize this, the Long Island Sound Study created the #DontTrashLISound campaign on social media in 2017, posting information about alternatives to single-use on their online platforms. Since 2018, the Study has partnered with several other environmental organizations to hold beach clean-ups and distribute thousands of “Protect our Wildlife” stickers which could be displayed on reusable water bottles.
Cheyenne Ellis is a communications intern at NEIWPCC for The Long Island Sound Study (summer 2021). She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies from Mount Holyoke College in 2021.
A new study being conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Connecticut is looking beyond typical studies on anadromous fish and asking a bigger question: the fish ladders are in place, the eggs are laid, but can the juvenile fish actually get out of the river and into the Long Island Sound?
Biologist Eric Schultz and his team seek to answer just that in their new study which will examine the effect of low water levels, or low-flows, on out-migrating juvenile alewives in Connecticut rivers. The project, which will commence in the summer of 2021 and continue on to the summer of 2022, has been awarded a Long Island Sound Study research grant of $231,013, with $123,000 in matching funds.
“One of the things that became very clear to me as we were working with some of these [fish] populations down here on the coast is that juvenile alewives are having difficulty leaving the pond they were born in during some periods of the summer because the stream dries up,” said Dr. Shultz, a professor at the University of Connecticut and a member of the NOAA Technical Expert Working Group on River Herring. He has previously done other research on anadromous fish that was funded by CT Sea Grant. “Without a real quantification of how widespread the problem is, and without a real understanding of how much that impairs the populations, we felt that we needed to undergo a focused study on the topic.”
Low-flows could have a big impact on the conservation efforts working to protect river herring. Both types of river herring, alewives and blueback herring, have been on the conservation radar in New England and New York for decades, but their decline dates all the way back to colonial America. Prior to the arrival of the colonists, the sheer number of fish in a spawning run had the ability to turn rivers silver in the early spring months. With the arrival of the European settlers came an increase in the exploitation of herring and eventually, the creation of dams. While some of these were built as a flood-prevention method or a source of irrigation for nearby farms, the vast majority of dams were built in order to harvest hydroelectric energy that could power nearby factories. These dams, while providing many benefits to the nearby communities, would ultimately come to prevent migrating fish from getting to certain upstream parts of the river.
There have been extensive efforts over the last 40 years to help adult alewives reach their spawning grounds including installing fish ladders (structures that allow migrating fish get over and around a dam), creating bypass channels, and even removing dams altogether. For a while, these strategies appeared to be effective. Alewife populations skyrocketed in the decade following their implementation, only to collapse again in the 1990s for reasons that are still unknown.
The importance of alewives to the Long Island Sound is indisputable—they are the base of the coastal food chain in the Northeast. Migrating river herring are an important food source for both local rivers and the Sound, where they are eaten by nearly everything that resides there—protected seabirds, larger fish, mammals, turtles, and even whales have been known to snack on them. Some predatory fish like the striped bass will even follow schools of alewives upriver while they are spawning to maintain access to an easy food source.
In addition to being an energy source for other species, alewives are also an important part of the nutrient cycle, bringing nutrients to and from their spawning grounds. They distribute these nutrients through the eggs they lay, their excreted materials, and their bodies once they die. The eggs are also a particularly important protein source for smaller aquatic species such as zooplankton, clams, and insects.
Alewives also play other hidden roles in the ecosystem. Silver clouds of migrating fish make the perfect cover for juvenile salmon heading out to sea for the first time, as well as adults returning upriver to breed. Without their cover, salmon face an increased risk of predation from large birds and fewer would survive the migration.
Currently, alewives are the only confirmed host for a type of freshwater mussel called the alewife floater (Anodonta implicata). When released as larvae, these young mussels must attach themselves to an alewife’s fins or gills in order to survive. Without access to alewives, these mussels will disappear from certain parts of Connecticut rivers. Their loss would be a devastating blow to the native freshwater mussel populations already at-risk from water pollution and invasives like the zebra mussel. Healthy mussels provide important filtering abilities, as well as act as bioindicators for the health of the river.
Unfortunately, our freshwater mussels are in trouble; The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that of the nearly 300 varieties in the United States, 70 percent need some sort of special protection.
After becoming aware of potential connectivity issues at Bride Brook, Schultz teamed up with hydrologist Dr. James Knighton and GIS specialist Cary Chadwick, both also from the University of Connecticut, to complete a six-step research study investigating the effect of low-flows on juvenile alewives. While not necessarily the only challenge to juvenile out-migration, low-flows appear to have one of the largest potential impacts. Their research will survey several different Connecticut river locations including Bride Brook, Whitford Brook, a portion of the Pattagansett River, Fishing Brook, and the Branford Supply Pond. The first two steps, which are already underway, include collecting existing data and characterizing the hydrological conditions of herring streams that may result in low-flows.
“There are competing processes that are driving low streamflow,” said Dr. Knighton, who is an assistant professor in hydrology at the University of Connecticut. “Trees take up water from underground and transpire it. In natural environments, about half of all rainfall is transpired, and the other half becomes streamflow. Across the Long Island Sound watershed, many residents are watering lawns, which also pulls water away from streamflow…. Pinning this down will be critical for developing accurate predictions of future conditions.”
The team will also create soil and water hydrologic models that will help predict the likelihood and location of low-flows. The next stage of the study involves the surveying of migrating juvenile alewives. They will be using photo equipment set up at each site to collect data on the seasonal pattern of alewife out-migration. In addition, they will be sampling juvenile fish as they are leaving to take growth assessments. The gathered information will be combined with the hydrological condition findings to create an online map viewer that will show stream connectivity loss risks to water resource managers.
The future success of alewives is going to rely on more than just installing fish ladders. Climate change and other anthropogenic threats such as water pollution and overfishing play a key role in the success and restoration of the once-plentiful alewife populations of the Long Island Sound. The Northeast Climate Science Center predicts that northeastern states, which have already seen an average temperature increase of 1°C (or 33°F), will continue to experience drier summers, with most of the precipitation coming down in extreme weather events, rather than gradually throughout the season. This pattern increases the risk of droughts in between the larger rainfalls. The team from the University of Connecticut is well aware of these risks.
“I think there will be increasing atmospheric water demand with increasing temperatures and intensifying precipitation,” said Knighton. “More water demand means more evaporation and transpiration from soil and groundwater…. Any increase in evapotranspiration should directly reduce streamflow. More intense storms mean more runoff and less groundwater recharge and therefore, less baseflow in streams.”
With the online tools this study will create, municipalities will be able to see which streams are at risk of connectivity loss and may be able to shift their water usage to another site to prevent overdrawing from the rivers. The study will also pave the way for future research into the effects of climate change on alewives by creating a basis for juvenile migration times and hydrological conditions of Connecticut waterways, which other studies can use when designing their own research.
Great Meadows Marsh, a 225-acre saltmarsh in Stratford, Connecticut, has long been known as one of the largest and most diverse marsh habitats in Connecticut. Despite this, the site is currently facing unprecedented threats from rising sea levels and invasive plant takeover. Three of the marsh’s most at-risk species are struggling with increased habitat loss. Increasingly rare high marsh ecosystems are disappearing. Even the local community is having trouble visiting—pooling waters throughout the marsh bring in hordes of mosquitoes, making it virtually inaccessible in the summer months. All of these dangers make for a terrifying realization: if this is happening at one of the most prolific marshes in Connecticut, what does this mean for the future of our smaller marshlands?
Luckily for Great Meadows Marsh, a team of state, federal, and non-profit environmental organizations from across Connecticut have come together with the same goal in mind: to restore Great Meadows to its former glory. The project, which is expected to begin this fall, will become one of the largest restoration projects Connecticut has ever seen.
This project has been a long time coming. The problems at Great Meadows Marsh (a unit of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge) began in the 1950s when soil dredged from the Bridgeport Harbor was placed with the marsh, creating uplands infested with invasive phragmites and other vegetation where there once was salt marsh. This, in addition to sea level rise, has resulted in habitat loss for several species that are limited to brackish water conditions. Much of the marshlands are disappearing through a process called coastal squeeze, which Jim Turek, a restoration ecologist for NOAA, defines as when the marsh is invaded by seawater, but has nowhere to move due to urbanization.
“The uplands next to the marsh have been developed so there’s not an opportunity for the marsh to migrate along with the increase in sea level rise,” said Turek. “The marsh is being squeezed on the sea level side by the fact that it’s more and more flooded and it can’t tolerate that flooding. On the landward side, there’s nowhere for the marsh to go because it’s all been developed.” With its proximity to several large urban areas, Great Meadows is at an increased risk of seeing marshland habitat disappear.
What makes Great Meadows unique is its size and diversity in comparison to other marshlands. The amount of biodiversity makes the site more resilient to threats. Smaller saltmarshes and wetlands throughout the Long Island Sound are not so lucky—the Ramsar Convention’s 2015 Global Wetland Outlook found that wetland habitats are disappearing three times faster than forests. Many saltmarshes cannot keep up with the pace of sea level rise. For that reason, it is of the utmost importance to protect and revitalize our remaining marshlands in any way we can.
Connecticut’s Environmental Organizations Work Towards a Common Goal
Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Connecticut, remarks that one of her favorite parts of this project is watching a variety of organizations come together to make this project successful. Key partners in this project include the Great Meadow Trustees, consisting of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the NOAA Restoration Center, and CT DEEP. Audubon Connecticut recently joined in on the project when the main partners were in search of a non-governmental organization to partner with in order to apply for additional funding.
“Audubon had actually just finished a three-year strategic plan, and we felt that saltmarsh nesting birds were one of the groups of birds that were most at risk as a result of sea level rise,” said Folsom-O’Keefe. “It was perfect timing! Audubon has done a strategic plan and decided this was what was going to be a big focus of ours and the Great Meadows Trustees were looking for an NGO to become a member of the partnership so we jumped onboard.”
The Long Island Sound Futures Fund has awarded the project $499,974, with $500,249 in matching funds. Additionally, the Long Island Sound Study Enhancement Grant Program awarded the project $2,000,000 to help fund the construction, project oversight, and other costs related to the project. There is also $838,492 in Natural Resource Damages settlement case funds coming to the project.
Many other organizations throughout Connecticut are planning to get involved as well, making this truly a collaborative effort. The Nature Conservancy, Atlantic Coast Fish Habitat Partnership, The Schuman Foundation, The Jeniam Foundation, and the Department of the Interior (via the Atlantic Coast Fish Habitat Partnership, USFWS Refuge and Coasts Programs) have all committed funding to the project. Additionally, Save the Sound, The Connecticut Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Sacred Heart University, the Menunkatuck Audubon Society, and the Friends of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge have all pledged to help organize the volunteer effort in the spring.
Monitoring Great Meadows with LiDAR Technology and Lab Testing
Thanks to advancements in monitoring technologies, planning for the restoration of Great Meadows Marsh was an accurate and efficient process. One of the new techniques that the team utilized was an aerial drone with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, which was able to accurately capture the ground elevations through the vegetation covering, producing results within a two-inch accuracy. To do this, the drone shoots and records a laser beam many times across the ground. The beams then bounce back and can measure the distance it traveled. While spot checks were also done by experts on the ground to verify these findings, drone technology is more cost-effective and quicker than previous methods, which involved taking a series of aerial photographs from a plane and interpreting multiple images side-by-side by an expert. The Great Meadows restoration marks one of the first times LiDAR technology was used for measuring topography in Connecticut.
In addition to determining marsh elevations, researchers also investigated soil conditions. Samples were taken from test pits and brought to a lab, where they underwent a 16-week analysis. Each week, while the soil was dampened and gradually exposed to oxygen, acid levels were recorded. The pH level on any sample changing quickly, or dropping below a certain level, was an indication that sulfates were present, which can result in the production of sulfides. If sulfides are then exposed to oxygen, they can create sulfuric acid, which is toxic to plants. Most soil showed low levels of sulfides, but any soil that appears to be at risk will be strategically placed or amended with lime to help restore the marsh.
These two tests were far from the only monitoring done at Great Meadows. The year-long research effort included several other testing methods including a survey of endangered plant species, an evaluation of topographic data from a 15-year time span, an analysis of tidal gauge data from Bridgeport, and an inventory of the plant and animal communities that reside in the marsh. With all of this data, participating organizations were able to come together to agree on a restoration action plan for Great Meadows.
From Soil to Seed: The Great Meadows Restoration Plan
The restoration process has been broken into two main steps: soil replacement in the fall and a mass planting effort in the spring.
Starting in the fall of 2021, contractors will begin moving soils to better suit the needs of the marsh. Soil shown to contain sulfuric acid compounds will be treated to prevent any risk to native plants. In areas with invasive phragmites, the top six inches of soil will be removed and taken off-site to prevent any roots from remaining in the soil.
Additionally, due to fill being placed unevenly on-site decades before, some parts of the marsh are currently at an elevation that is too high to contain any features of actual marsh habitat. In these locations, excess soil will be relocated to other parts of the marsh that will benefit from a higher elevation, such as the low-marsh areas battling the impacts of sea level rise. Much of this extra soil will also go to restoring the high-marsh at Great Meadows. These areas typically have sandy soil and are intolerant of frequent flooding. A number of threatened birds depend primarily on high-marsh to survive, which is what makes this soil restoration project is so important.
“What we’re seeing is less and less [high-marsh] habitat, not only on Great Meadows Marsh, but everywhere else in Connecticut and beyond,” said Turek. “It’s tragic that these species have a very specific habitat that’s disappearing. What we’re trying to do is restore some of that habitat for them and to do that, we have to bring up elevation.”
Soil restoration is not the only plan for Great Meadows this year. There will also be efforts to improve transitional tidal habitats throughout the site. Doing so will likely result in less pooled water, which is a known hang-out spot for the pesky mosquitoes that make the marsh very unpleasant in the summertime. This, in turn with the planned modified trails and observation platforms, will make the park more accessible for the local community.
With soil restoration set to be completed by spring, the marsh will be ready for a planting effort that will revitalize the habitats of several endangered species.
Great Meadows Needs Your Help Saving the Marsh Pink Wildflower
Perhaps the greatest hope of those involved in the project is improved habitat access for three of Connecticut’s most at-risk species—the diamondback terrapin, the saltmarsh sparrow, and the marsh pink wildflower.
The diamondback terrapin is a turtle species that nests exclusively in coastal tidal marshes. Because of the steep inclines at the marsh, accessing nesting locations has been a struggle for female turtles who have trouble making the climb. The area also has notoriously poor soil, not the sandy kind which is preferred by terrapins, which makes their nests less secure from predators and flooding. Part of the restoration efforts include lowering parts of the marsh with steep inclines, which will help these turtles get to their nesting locations and find better soil to nest in.
The saltmarsh sparrow is a bird whose primary nesting location is inches above the high tide line. Typically, the tide is high enough at a full moon and new moon to completely wash these nests away, giving the birds only around 23 days to completely incubate and raise their chicks. Unfortunately, with sea level rise, this short window of time is decreasing even more as the tide becomes high enough to wash the nest away even before the moon reaches these stages.
O’Keefe and the rest of the Audubon Connecticut team will be testing out a new hypothesis at Great Meadows—will saltmarsh sparrows be willing to nest on raised hummock beds? If so, these hummocks will give the nests a few more inches above the high tide line, buying them some extra nesting time. O’Keefe cannot stress enough the importance of saltmarsh sparrows as indicators for the health of our marshes.
“The saltmarsh sparrow is kind of like the canary in the coal mine—oh my god, if we lose the saltmarsh sparrow, we’re in trouble,” she said.
The final targeted species of this project is the marsh pink wildflower. Currently, Great Meadows Marsh is the last known site that supports the flower in Southern New England. While marsh pink does not grow in the actual saltmarshes, its preferred habitat is just upslope, where the ground is moist, but not salty. With this habitat disappearing more and more each year, the flower has become increasingly rare.
Marsh pink is an annual that requires seed dispersal each year. Luckily for them, they will have some assistance this spring with the help of a massive volunteer effort currently being organized by many of Connecticut’s environmental organizations. While planting marsh pink is an easy task, the restoration team is hoping to plant a few hundred thousand of these seedlings, meaning they need all of the help they can get. Planting is expected to begin in April or May of 2022.
While these three are the species receiving the most direct restoration efforts, O’Keefe is optimistic that everything being done at Great Meadows Marsh over the next year will be highly beneficial to every living thing that resides in or visits the marsh.
“There are three focal species, but there’s benefits to fish populations, as well as other bird species,” said O’Keefe. “The surrounding community also benefits in terms of being able to visit the marsh.” From flood protection to ecosystem health, the benefits of having a more resilient marsh are simply too numerous to count.
If you or someone you know would like to get involved with the marsh pink planting volunteer efforts in April and May of 2022, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with Corrie Folsom O’Keefe ([email protected]).
Sunlight hitting Great Meadows Marsh. Credit: Frank Mantlik.
Great Meadows at sunset. Credit: Frank Mantlik.
Aerial photo of Great Meadow Marsh and surrounding areas. Credit: Jim Turek.
Two culverts at Great Meadows Marsh that will be replaced during the restoration process. Phragmites will also be removed from this area. Credit: Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe.
A meadow in Great Meadows Marsh with invasive phragmites taking over native plants. Credit: Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe.
Willet at Great Meadows Marsh, who nest on site. Credit: Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe.
Clapper Rail at Great Meadows Marsh, Who Nests on Site. Credit: Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe.
The marsh pink wildflower in its habitat at Great Meadows. Credit: USFWS.
Marsh pink at Great Meadows. Credit: USFWS.
Egrets, herons, and ducks at Great Meadows, alongside some invasive phragmites. Credit: Frank Mantlik.
A saltmarsh sparrow in nesting grass habitat saltmarsh grass habitat (Spartina alterniflora) at Great Meadows Marsh. Credit: Frank Mantlik.
Osprey nesting at Great Meadows. Credit: Frank Mantlik.
Cheyenne Ellis, a summer 2021 Science Communications Intern for the Long Island Sound Study, describes her experience in 2019 as an aquatic ecology intern conducting field research at Lord Cove in Old Lyme for the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center. A video of this blog, narrated by Ellis, is available on Long Island Sound Study’s YouTube channel.
Up ahead, I see an egret standing in the shallows of the brackish water. I focus on it while my co-intern enters the coordinates for our next test point; with the water at this height, the egret’s long, awkward legs are almost hidden beneath the surface. I hear a clicking sound which draws my attention back to the canoe. I turn my head. The largest spider I’ve ever seen, short of being in an exhibit, is crawling past me, heading towards the front of the boat. I scream to my co-intern who promptly turns around. Though I am the one who fearfully plucks the tiny, docile daddy long-legs from the canoe each morning before going out, this monstrous spider is apparently my colleague’s limit. With one swing of her paddle, it goes flying out of the boat and into the water. She turns right back around and begins plugging away at the coordinates once again.
Two and a half hours later, with a TerraSlate datasheet full of abbreviated scientific names, we return to the dock. Only with this dock, we can’t actually “dock”— it’s too high up for a canoe. Instead, we grab ahold of the sides and push against it, propelling the canoe back to shore. We don’t get too far, though. With a foot and a half of water still between us and the tiny bank, we have to disembark here. I step out of the canoe and the water reaches my knees. My co-intern, already much farther ashore than me, easily makes it back to solid ground. She begins to pull the canoe in. I lift my leg and try to walk; it won’t budge. Neither will the other one. Panicking, I pull my leg upwards with as much force as I can muster until my open-toed sandal squelches out of the mud like a suction cup, flinging mud all over me. I take the rest of the way slow and calculated, until my feet are firmly back on land. I look down—I’m covered in mud from head to toe. So is the datasheet I’m still holding, which I’ll have to wipe down before inputting. I wipe my paddle off in the grass and leave it by the canoe for tomorrow’s work: another day on the waters of the Connecticut River Estuary.
Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed my brief stint as a field researcher. I got to explore some of the most beautiful places in Connecticut and float side by side with the rarest wildlife in the area. But for me, there was something missing. While I sat on the boat, waiting to record the types of aquatic vegetation yards below me, I thought of all the ways I could turn my experiences on the water into words. I wanted to use our pencil and waterproof notebook to explore the history of the river valley, to caution about the invasives we were finding throughout the estuary. I wanted to write. I will always love exploring nature, but meticulously collecting scientific data in the field (not to mention my close encounters with arachnids)? It just wasn’t for me.
From the time I was old enough to conceptualize the idea of a career, I knew I wanted to do one of two things: writing or caring for animals. Sometimes as a child, I would combine these interests by listing my dream job as “Author, specializing in writing about sea turtle veterinary care.” I remained passionate about the environment and writing throughout my life, eventually leading me to Mount Holyoke College, where I decided to major in environmental studies with a minor in English.
I took many influential courses during my time in college, but one in particular stood out above the rest—it was a course called Reading and Writing in the World with Lauret Savoy. In this class, we explored work by writers who attempted to capture the natural world in their writing. One of the most memorable books was Savoy’s own work Trace, which delves into the history and culture of the American Landscape. I left her class with a takeaway that inspired my final project as an undergraduate: every person, every place, and everything has a story to tell, should you look closely enough.
Stuck taking virtual classes in the basement of my parent’s house in Connecticut due to Covid-19, I did not believe I’d be able to produce a significant senior project given the limitations that came with being away from campus. My plan was to write a reflection on personal narratives that we’d read in class, but without access to those books, I was out of ideas. I thought about writing a personal narrative of my own, but couldn’t think of anything substantial to write about. I played through the course of my life over and over (hometown, college, internship, more college) and slowly began to visualize how the trajectory of my life and the places I lived all had one thing in common: they were all on the banks of the Connecticut River.
I went to my local library in search of books on the history of my town and the Connecticut River and found there to be so much more than I had anticipated. The Connecticut, which begins steps away from Quebec, traverses for 406 miles through four different states, before eventually reaching the Long Island Sound. Alone, it contributes 70 percent of the water that goes into the Sound. In my research, I found books on everything from local indigenous history and town records to an entire book on witchcraft trials and artistic works done along the Connecticut River. I found out that the river had its own mythological creature, affectionately named “Connie,” which has been “sighted” over five times. I found out the origin of the word “Connecticut” came from an Algonquian word meaning “long, tidal river,” which had been spelled over 40 different ways in earlier writing. I found out how much I never knew about the very land I grew up on.
In one of the books I read, there was a line about how rivers, especially the Connecticut, have become a thing we spot from the bridges when crossing the highway, but never take the time to appreciate. That was certainly true in my life. Although I had resided along the river my entire life, I never so much as went out on the water, or even sat at its banks, until my internship the previous summer. I drove down to the river area for the first time while doing my project. I never knew how important a waterway it was for all of New England, or the rich history steeped in its valley.
With my new-found appreciation of river valley history paired with my love of aquatic environments and writing, I knew that I wanted to find a way to bring public awareness to water conservation efforts. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College this spring, I became a summer communications intern (working remotely because of Covid-19) at NEIWPCC and the Long Island Sound Study where I’ve interviewed several scientists and have written feature articles about their research. I have also been updating the Stewardship Atlas section of the website, where I’ve added pictures that I took during my time on the estuary and have worked on creating a web page on Living Shoreline Projects in the Long Island Sound. Helping to tell the stories of efforts to restore the Sound showed me that I can still have a meaningful impact on the environment, without having to be out in the field every day.
This fall, I’m going to be starting a master’s degree program in sustainability science at UMass Amherst, where I’m planning to concentrate on water sustainability and climate change. In the future, I hope to continue being a science communicator and help the public understand the threats of climate change, as well as all the incredible work and research that is being done. I’m extremely grateful for this experience I’ve had with the Long Island Sound Study and have greatly valued the opportunity to interview scientists and working professionals in the field.
Cheyenne Ellis is a communications intern at NEIWPCC for The Long Island Sound Study. She has been working as an intern during the summer of 2021. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies from Mount Holyoke College in 2021, and in the fall will be attending UMass Amherst to pursue a Master’s Degree in Sustainability Science, with a focus on water sustainability and communications.
For more information on the Connecticut River, view the Lower Connecticut River Stewardship Atlas.