The Texas Sea Grant College Program is as unique now as it was when it was founded 40 years ago. The sea grant concept was conceived outside the box of traditional governmental agencies in 1966, and it has remained — well — out there.
Sea grant owes its uniqueness to its ability to combine research, outreach and education into one entity. Every state that borders an ocean or the Great Lakes, as well as Puerto Rico, has at least one sea grant program. Sea grant’s founding legislation required that state programs be associated with institutes of higher education so sea grant’s people could capture the academic capacities of the universities in which they were housed and use the knowledge there to help average citizens make wise decisions about using and conserving their coastal and marine resources.
September 2011 through August 2012 is Texas Sea Grant’s 40th year of service to Texans — its ruby anniversary. During the past four decades, Texas Sea Grant (TXSG) has helped Texans learn from and about their coastal waters while nurturing stewardship for these precious ecosystems. The program has funded research on coastal erosion, pollution, endangered sea turtles, freshwater inflows, hurricanes, coastal development and harmful algal blooms, to name a few issues; through its outreach program it started the forerunner to the Texas Adopt-A-Beach Program, staked Christmas trees to beaches in order to form artificial dunes, helped reunite boat owners with vessels blown inland by Hurricane Ike, saved Texas shrimpers millions of dollars in fuel costs and collected more than 800 miles of used fishing line that would have otherwise endangered aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.
Yet, TXSG remains one of the best-kept secrets in the state, and the National Sea Grant Network suffers from a similar anonymity, begging the most commonly asked question, “What is sea grant?”
There is no short answer, which lends to the program’s identity crisis. Strictly speaking, TXSG is a partnership of university, government and industry focusing on marine research, education and outreach. It receives about 70 percent of its funding through the National Sea Grant Program, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Texas legislature and Texas A&M University, where the program’s headquarters is located, provides the other 30 percent of TXSG’s budget. TXSG is considered a non-academic research center within the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M. The program’s outreach efforts include a communications program and an extension program comprising specialists in a number of fields and county coastal and marine resources agents who bring science to Texans in partnership with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and commissioners courts in participating coastal counties.
Without doubt, TXSG has been a very good investment for Texas legislators. The program has consistently brought in $6 of outside funding for every $1 in state money it receives and awarded more than $50 million in grants to the top marine researchers at 24 Texas universities and institutions. The average grant amounts have risen from about $20,000 per project per year to almost $100,000 per project per year.
The lifeblood of TXSG is encouraging Texans to volunteer for marine-related projects. During 2011 alone, the program marshaled volunteers who contributed an astonishing 55,000 hours of work, valued at almost $1.2 million dollars. These activities ranged from restoring more than 5,000 acres of dunes and wetlands to planting almost 32,400 plants to developing eight miles of nature trails. Volunteers also restored degraded ecosystems in 30 coastal communities.
Between the program’s research, outreach and education activities, there are few Texans who have not directly or indirectly benefitted from TXSG’s existence — a creation attributable not to the federal government, but a man as visionary as Sea Grant itself.
Land Grant Goes To Sea
The sea grant concept was born of the questioning mind of Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus in the early 1960s. Spilhaus, an internationally renowned inventor, author and scientist, was at the time the dean of the Institute of Technology at the University of Minnesota — a land grant college. Spilhaus was well aware that institutions like the University of Minnesota (and Texas A&M) were developed through the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.
The Morrill Acts provided that states could receive federal lands provided they used the land (or proceeds from its sale) to create agricultural and mechanical arts colleges. The Smith-Lever Act created cooperative extension programs with the intent of disseminating knowledge gained at land grant institutions to the farmers, ranchers and homemakers who could best use the information.
Spilhaus saw similarities between people who struggled to work the land in the mid-1800s and people who struggled to make their living from the sea in the 1960s. The fishermen were trying to protect declining fish stocks from encroachment by world leaders in fishing like Russia, Norway, China, Peru and Japan. Simply trying to safeguard the fish populations would not be sufficient. Spilhaus reasoned that the solution was in better knowledge of the resource and improved production methods, which would require a multi-faceted approach to the situation.
“Why, to promote the relationship between academic, state, federal and industrial institutions in fisheries, do we not do what wise men had done for the better cultivation of the land a century ago?” Spilhaus asked the assembled crowd during his 1963 keynote address to the American Fisheries Society. “Why not have ‘Sea Grant Colleges?’”
Spilhaus reflected on the thoughts that led to his historic words 33 years later, during an interview he gave to Texas Shores magazine in 1996 for a story on TXSG’s 25th Anniversary.
“Everyone involved with marine issues at that time worried about the relationship between industry, government and the universities,” he said a little less than two years before his death. “Land grant colleges had taken engineering, botany and academic subjects out of the colleges and put them to work on land. That proved to be so successful in bringing government, academia and the farmers together, why not have a sea grant program? I said something during my address that caught everyone’s fancy — instead of land-based county agents, we would have county agents in hip boots carrying their knowledge to fishermen on trawlers and fishing vessels.”
For certain, Spilhaus’ keynote address made a deep impression on Dr. Saul Saila, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island (URI). Saila thought the Sea Grant concept was so great that he convinced Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell (best known today for founding the university educational grant system that bears his name) to look into the possibility of getting a sea grant program for URI.
“It wasn’t long before Claiborne Pell called, but I didn’t know who he was,” Spilhaus said during his 1996 interview. “When he said he was the senator from Rhode Island, I remarked that he had a land grant college (URI) there. ‘Yes, we do,’ he said. ‘But you don’t have any land,’ I said. ‘Sea grant is a natural for you.’ He became enthusiastic and that was the beginning of my thinking of taking it further.”
Pell and Rep. Paul Rodgers of Florida became ardent supporters of the Sea Grant idea. They found a strong ally in Texas Congressman Olin Teague, whose district included the area around Texas A&M, and favorable public sentiment toward science in the relatively few years since Sputnik’s 1957 launch. As historian John Miloy noted in his book, Creating the College of the Sea: The Origin of the Sea Grant Program, “During the Sixties the public was acutely aware of science and technology, and oceanography became an important field of interest. It had not always been that way.”
With the backing of academics like Spilhaus, support from influential politicians like Pell, Rogers and Teague, and favorable public opinion, the National Sea Grant College and Program Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 15, 1966, a scant three years after its first public mention.
The fledgling program was nestled in the National Science Foundation and its first advisory panel chosen. Among the panel members was Dr. John C. Calhoun Jr, who was Texas A&M Vice President and the Texas A&M University System’s Vice Chancellor for Programs.
Calhoun is largely responsible for Texas A&M being one of the nation’s original sea grant colleges and he served as TXSG’s first director.
The Next 40 And Beyond
Texas Shores magazine, a publication of Texas Sea Grant, commemorated the program's 40 years of service to the state earlier this year.
As TXSG enters its fifth decade, there is no shortage of issues facing the Texas coast. Traditional work areas like aquaculture, fisheries, pollution, freshwater inflows, erosion and coastal community development will most likely be complicated by climate change, which includes sea level rise, and increasing coastal populations — which by itself will put a significant amount of pressure on the state’s marine resources.
One immediate problem, notes Joe Surovik, is that the state’s commercial shrimp industry is rapidly aging.
“The fishing industry is becoming an old industry,” he said. “About 60 percent of those making a living fishing are 55 to 60 years old, and there are no new people. It is hard work and cheap imports are making it impossible for Texas shrimpers to compete.”
The state’s ongoing drought is complicating matters for commercial fishermen by increasing the salinity of the estuarine waters that juvenile shrimp and many species of recreationally and commercially important fish use as a nursery grounds.
Not to mention, Surovik said, the prolonged red tide is also adversely impacting the state’s fishing and oyster industries.
“Something has to be done,” he said.
The challenges facing the fishing industry are just a small sample of the types of problems that TXSG will face as it, too, continues to mature and develop.
“Texas Sea Grant will need to find solutions to and do outreach on all of these issues as well as the new challenges that will arise,” said Pam Plotkin, current director of Texas Sea Grant.
Article written by Jim Hiney and originally appeared in Texas Shores magazine