Richard Spinrad, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans  and Administrator at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with several members of his team, visit the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut in April 2024.

Richard Spinrad, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Administrator at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with several members of his team, visit the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut in April 2024. (JOE MICHAEL/Mystic Seaport Museum/Facebook)

(Tribune News Service) — Those returning to a Connecticut marina this summer after a charter fishing excursion might spot one of QuanTech’s newest hires waiting dockside to tally up the day’s catch for federal fisheries management purposes.

You, the boat captain and that fish counter count when it comes to Connecticut’s so-called “blue economy” — which appears to be on the upswing amid burgeoning commercial work in seaports, and people casting about for leisure time along the shore.

In 2021, Connecticut’s marine economy generated its highest economic output on record, with employment in the sector hitting an estimated 61,385 jobs as estimated by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That was about 1,200 more jobs than in 2019, which had shattered the previous record employment figure the year before. BEA and NOAA have yet to publish state-level figures for 2022.

Now a Connecticut Blue Economy Coalition has formed to boost businesses linked to the sea through the products and services they sell. Last week they held a ceremony at Mystic Seaport Museum to mark the start of their work.

“I think it will create a great network for us to think of other ways to build the blue economy,” said Paul Whitescarver, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region nonprofit in Groton and the former commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Base New London. “Connecticut has hubs like biotech — I’d love to see a blue economy hub.”

The marine economy generated nearly 2 percent of U.S. economic activity in 2022, according to estimates last week by the BEA and NOAA, with Connecticut’s marine economy having had a 3 percent share of total gross domestic product.

In their marine economy estimates, BEA and NOAA include everything from federal installations like the Groton naval base or the U.S. Coast Guard’s research center in New London; to commercial work like Connecticut’s oyster and kelp harvesters; to recreational spending and related jobs, like beach lifeguards or charter-boat captains.

Maritime development for ports

Connecticut’s biggest maritime bet has been on State Pier in New London, which after more than $300 million in upgrades and cost overruns has been transformed into a staging hub for construction of offshore wind farms. Wind farm developer Orsted is now loading tower sections, turbine blades and other parts on barges at State Pier for transport to the ocean site where the Revolution Wind farm is being installed. The wind farm will supply electricity to Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The last week of May, the Connecticut Port Authority submitted an application for an additional $6 million in federal funding for equipment at State Pier that would allow ships to draw electricity while docked at the pier, eliminating any need to run their engines for electricity.

To boost the state’s waterfront economy further, the Connecticut Port Authority announced the hire on Thursday of a “maritime development” manager whose responsibilities include not just the deepwater ports of New London, New Haven and Bridgeport, but also more than 30 small harbors. Earlier in his career, Eric Dussault served on the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Reliance, then oversaw port operations for American Cruise Lines based in Guilford, which offers “small ship” river and coastal cruises in the United States.

The Authority is now soliciting applicants for a fourth installment of grants under the Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program. Just over $5 million was authorized in the third round, including $3 million to dredge channels for Cove Island Park Marina in Stamford as part of an extensive recovery effort from damage in the 2012 storm Sandy; about $1 million for repairs and upgrades to Branford Point Wharf; and $250,000 for work on a Stonington pier where multiple fishing vessels are berthed.

“The infrastructure improvements for small harbors is probably the best opportunity for us,” Hammond said. “It’s about tourism, it’s about fishing, it’s about recreation with respect to our small harbors.”

Tourism and recreation accounted for the biggest dollar increase to the U.S. marine economy in 2022 of the major subsectors tracked by BEA and NOAA, with an additional $16.5 billion in activity.

Up and down waterways of the East Coast, commercial enterprises exist elbow-to-elbow with recreational outlets, and that is no different along Connecticut’s shore and river valleys. Late last year across the water from Bridgeport’s budding Steelpointe Harbor development that is in line for a new Residence Inn by Marriott, onlookers got a sight of the corvette warship USNS Hiddensee getting hauled from the water. The ship had been put up for scrap by the Massachusetts museum Battleship Cove, having deemed repairs and upkeep too expensive.

Hornblower Marine tapped Bridgeport Boatworks in 2021 as its main yard to overhaul its fleet of New York ferries and tourist boats, with the two companies creating a scholarship program for Bridgeport students enrolled at Porter and Chester Institute who are interested in maritime trades.

“We took a piece of waterfront ... that had been cut off from the public for 100-plus years, and we opened up that waterfront to the public,” said Bobby Christoph Jr., principal of Bridgeport Landing Development which landed Bridgeport Boatworks in 2021 at the former Derecktor Shipyards facility. “Having my office there, I see people all the time drive down ... just to walk or stroll or take a lunch break on the waterfront. It’s so neat to see it actually be utilized now.”

‘Out of the DOD realm’

Nationwide last year, shipyards saw the biggest increase in U.S. marine economic activity at 14.6 percent. Connecticut has been a major beneficiary, with the General Dynamics Electric Boat plant in Groton on a sustained hiring binge to keep up with U.S. Navy submarine orders, along with Electric Boat’s auxiliary plant at Quonset Point, R.I.

Electric Boat’s newest addition is a massive new construction “shed” in Groton, where workers will piece together a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines as their Navy crews get trained to operate them in an attached lodging and learning facility.

Across the Thames River, turbines for the planned Revolution Wind farm are being staged to be barged off the New England coast for installation. BEA and NOAA are now for the first time reporting offshore wind farm construction and operation in its marine economy figures, estimated at $116 million in 2022.

And upstream along the Connecticut River in Portland, Birdon invested in an existing boatyard where it is overhauling more than 100 U.S. Coast Guard rescue boats, to include refurbished hulls, decks, propulsion, electronics and other upgrades.

Despite the massive employment bases for Electric Boat and the submarine base, BEA and NOAA estimate that New Haven County has a slightly larger camp of workers in marine industries, at just over 20,000 workers in all. New Haven County added nearly 3,000 industry jobs over two years, between 2019 and 2021.

New Haven climbed five rungs in 2022 on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tally of cargo tonnage at U.S. ports, leaving it just outside the top 50 ports in the United States. Hammond said that extensive dredging work is now underway in New Haven to widen and deepen the harbor’s channels to accommodate larger vessels. New London was not included in the rankings.

Bridgeport had one of the largest drops in the Army Corps of Engineers study, with cargo tonnage down 30 percent. And despite the success of Bridgeport Boatworks, the city absorbed a blow after Park City Wind scrapped plans for a wind farm staging hub there as construction costs spiraled beyond revenue forecasts for the electricity Park City Wind would generate.

One example of the possibilities for smaller Northeast ports is Portsmouth, N.H., where the Navy has a submarine maintenance yard. The Piscataqua River city generated the third biggest increase in cargo tonnage in the United States in 2022, among nearly 150 ports for which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published data for both that year and 2021.

Back on the Thames River, Whitescarver had a video created early this year to showcase the waterway’s economic assets, from the University of Connecticut Avery Point, U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut; to Electric Boat and the Naval Submarine Base New London; to heavy industries like Thames Shipyard, marine construction contractor Mohawk Northeast and Cashman Marine Dredging and Contracting.

Work proceeds on the National Coast Guard Museum slated for New London, which when completed will give the area a fourth destination tourist attraction on the maritime front, after the Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic Aquarium and the USS Nautilus at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum in Groton. And Whitescarver said land is available for additional enterprises.

“There’s so much going on on the Thames — a lot of development which is really impressive for our region, and the diversification that gets you out of the DOD realm and into some other things,” Whitescarver said.

(c)2024 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

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