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Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies

Southern Connecticut State University’s Blue Economy project in Long Island Sound is gearing up to have a profound green impact.

The Project Blue Hub, created by a team of dedicated researchers and spearheaded by Colleen Bielitz, associate vice president for Strategic Initiatives & Outreach, and Patrick Heidkamp, professor in the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences at SCSU, is the initial step towards creating a Blue Economy research, tech transfer and innovation hub in New Haven. By expanding the market for locally grown kelp and developing potential innovations aimed at the processing and marketing of kelp, the project will focus on the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved lives, and ocean ecosystem health.

Rich in biodiversity, kelp can be grown and harvested year round. It doesn’t need chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides, so its production is low impact. Kelp forests are home to a wide array of species, from invertebrates and fish to marine mammals and birds. Perhaps most importantly, kelp helps improve water quality by ‘fixing’ the nitrogen content of the surrounding water, reducing ocean acidification.

The world’s oceans are big business: The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports the global ocean economy could double in size by 2030, reaching approximately $3 trillion. Based on information from a Southern Connecticut State University research team, the Long Island Sound Blue Economy is projected to grow by 67% during that same time frame to an estimated $13.3 billion.

Colleen Bielitz and Patrick Heidkamp

“Project Blue is so important is because it will allow for continuous economic growth and the advancement of our local community,” Bielitz said. “Through our hub, we will resolve social problems in a sustainable and efficient way. We will develop new technologies, products and services to meet the needs of our community and beyond while continuously improving our capabilities through better use of our resources and assets, particularly the Long Island Sound.”

By using the emerging Long Island Sound kelp/seaweed industry as a catalyst for subsequent Blue Economy initiatives, Project Blue Hub aims to find alternative channels and develop niche markets for kelp through a concerted effort of research and development, innovation, and tech transfer to incubate local businesses.

These business will play a key role in the expansion of the kelp market, such as designing kelp-based cosmetic products; the creation of animal feed from seaweed; the development of bioplastics from Kelp/Seaweed; the utilization of kelp-based bioyarn and biotextiles; and assessing the potential for kelp use in the pharmaceutical industry. Rich in vitamins and minerals such as vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium, iron, and magnesium, expansion opportunities are ripe for kelp-based food products for consumers (for example, Fresh Kelp, Kelp Jerky, Kelp Beer, etc.). Kelp also is high in antioxidants, including carotenoids, flavonoids, and alkaloids, which help to fight against disease-causing free radicals.

Through partnerships with Gateway Community College and CT Next, Southern is prepared to provide up to 300 students with practical research and learning experiences in the burgeoning kelp industry in the next two years, creating an infrastructure for ocean farming innovation.

“Our students will form research innovation teams and create proof-of-concept products and innovations in the Blue Economy,” Bielitz said. “This will eliminate or shorten the learning curve to enter the blue innovation workforce. With our hub specifically designed for Blue Economy ideas to be hatched, we will provide students with the hard and soft skills needed to operate in this space.”

Southern’s Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies and the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences have long served as advocates for and experts in Connecticut’s oceanic health; now, partnering with government agencies, relevant local NGOs and business partners, Southern’s Blue Economy Project is leading the charge to create an infrastructure for ocean farming innovation — the economy of which encompasses renewable off-shore energy development, tourism, fisheries, maritime transport, waste management, climate change, coastal resilience, and more.

“Our work will highlight the close linkages between ocean health, climate change, and the well-being of the state,” Bielitz said. “This goes beyond viewing the ocean economy solely as a mechanism for economic growth. We want to create sustainable models based on the circular economy. Similar to the Green Economy, our Blue Economy hub will focus on being inclusive while acting as good stewards of our earth with a focus on social equity, while also meaningfully reducing environmental threats and ecological scarcities.”

Students Brooke Mercaldi and Lauren Brideau perform research with fellow student David Bakies at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Conn.

Summer is finally here, and that means heading to Connecticut’s coast to splash in the waves and sunbathe on the beach. But you may want to go right now. According to analysis conducted by Brooke Mercaldi and Lauren Brideau, juniors at Southern and paid researchers for Southern’s Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies (WCCMS), those miles of beach are quickly shrinking, and unless the state changes the way it handles coastline management, they won’t be back any time soon.

It’s a long-held belief that there is a seasonal rhythm to beaches in Connecticut: they erode during winter storms and are rebuilt during calmer summer months, thanks to fair-weather wave fields. However, Mercaldi and Brideau’s research on wave energy asymmetry is proving otherwise — that the state’s beaches don’t work this way and that our neighbor, Long Island, is the reason why.

Using laser surveying technology, Mercaldi has been studying the dynamics of Connecticut’s coasts since 2015. “We take three profiles at five beaches across the Connecticut coast: Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Bayview Beach in Milford, Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Rocky Neck State Park in Niantic, and Ocean Beach in New London,” she says.

Mercaldi’s research has shown that Long Island actually intercepts the fair-weather waves, the waves that originate in the Atlantic and have sufficient energy to rebuild our beaches after a storm. Mercaldi has found that Connecticut’s locally generated fair-weather wave field lacks the requisite energy to move the sand from the bars back onto the beach.

“Brooke has discovered some things about how Connecticut beaches work that go against the textbook train of thought,” says James Tait, professor of marine and environmental sciences and co-coordinator of WCCMS. “Along Connecticut shorelines, swell waves from distant storms, they run into the South shore of Long Island before they reach Connecticut,” he says. “So, the shoreline of Connecticut erodes and nothing happens. If we could get rid of Long Island, we’d be all set.”

Since moving Long Island isn’t an option, alternatives that combat erosion are needed, and that’s where fellow researcher Brideau is lending her expertise. She has focused exclusively on Hammonasset, which draws more than one million annual visitors and has had beach and dune erosion problems along its western half. As part of her beach sand transport and deposition study, Brideau is evaluating the fate of a 2017 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that involved transporting about 300,000 cubic yards of sand dredged from the Housatonic River on barges to Hammonasset — for an estimated $9 million.

“If you showed up at Hammonasset you wouldn’t notice right away, but pictures show what’s happened,” says Mark Sulik, Environmental Protection, Parks and Recreation supervisor at Hammonasset. “We know we lose sand, and you’ll see after a storm that the drop-off is really noticeable. Then two weeks later it’ll be back, but we have noticed that over the past 30, 40, 50 years consistently, most of it disappears for good.”

Brideau, who has become the “go to” beach scientist for the park, has set up a network of approximately 30 beach profiles that she measures every three months using a total station and reflector. She has been working with park management and with the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as well as supplying additional data to the Corps such as depth of closure measurements and measurements of the dunes.

“Right now I’m still monitoring sediment and taking beach profiles,” says Brideau. “I survey the beach, the beach volume and width, and see where sediment is moving from and where it’s accumulating. We graph everything and compare all of the graphs on top of each other. It’s a visual way to see where sediment is going.”

The next phase, according to Brideau, is moving into designing sediment management — that’s where her expertise and Mercaldi’s have saved, and can continue to save, the state a significant amount of money.

“The towns don’t have the money to hire independent researchers to do this kind of investigation,” says Tait. “We’re doing it for free. It would probably cost them $100,000 to do this study if they hired a private company. We are saving the state millions in the long run, hundreds of thousands in the short term.”

What’s more, says Tait, importing sediment at the cost of $9 million per trip isn’t practical or sustainable. The idea, essentially, is to use Brideau and Mercaldi’s research to change the state’s mindset about coastal sustainability.

“What Lauren is doing — and Brooke as well — is to help them understand what’s happening to their eroded beach materials, and they use our data to move forward,” says Tait. “Nature isn’t going to put the sand back. We have to do the work that nature does. We always run into the erosion issues. We’re trying to push this idea that we do it once, then try to keep track of where it’s eroding and accumulating. So the idea is to reclaim and not re-nourish. It makes a huge amount of economic sense.”

Brideau hopes that by bringing her findings to General Assembly, the research will help spur better coastal management and policy.

“Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is aware of these projects and has been helpful in guiding our initiatives,” Brideau says. “But a better approach is to bring it to the legislature to implement policy change. Connecticut state beaches need to be manually replenished. People don’t know this or recognize it, and there’s no money for it. The next step is to bring it to the legislature and find someone who understands the urgency of it.”

Sulik, of Hammonasset, understands. “In the long-term, we don’t really have a plan to protect the beach,” he says. “Any information we get is beneficial. For future generations we need to look at better management plans.”

WTNH did a story recently on the students’ research at Hammonasset. Watch the video to learn more about Brideau’s and Mercaldi’s research, along with fellow student David Bakies.

 

Southern marine science students soon will be able to use the Southwest Ledge Lighthouse — which overlooks New Haven Harbor — as a base to conduct research, thanks to the generosity of a group of donors who bought the facility.

The donors were awarded the lighthouse recently after posting the successful bid of about $180,000. They plan to renovate the lighthouse in preparation for future use of the facility by SCSU’s Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies, as well as other education organizations. SCSU intends to use it as a field station that would include classrooms and lab space.

The New Haven Register ran a Sept. 3 story about the purchase and future use of the facility by Southern and other groups.

Southwest Ledge Lighthouse, New Haven, CT
Photo courtesy of Vincent Breslin