Sea Grant Program

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The sea is an integral part of American heritage. Historically, marine commerce, seafood products, and the productivity of coastal communities have been essential to the U.S. economy. However, the marine sciences did not enjoy a prominent role in the early development of the country's science enterprise. This began to change during the post-Sputnik years, spurred by U.S. President John F. Kennedy's statement in 1961 that "knowledge and understanding of the oceans promise to assume greater importance in the future." By 1963 the Federal Council for Science and Technology published a long-range plan for oceanography that marked a greater federal commitment to the field.

Unlike the ocean sciences, engineering and agricultural research flourished during the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. This was made possible by the land-grant program, perhaps America's greatest contribution to university education. The Morrill Act, in 1862, and subsequent legislation established in every state a unique university-based, federally funded system that combined programs of research and educationand the extension of that knowledge to practical application. The land grant experiment has been an enormously successful model for federal-state partnerships.

The land grant concept provided the model that Athelstan Spilhaus, then a dean at the University of Minnesota, referred to in September 1963 when he remarked, "Why do we not do what wise men have done for the better cultivation of the land a century ago, why not have Sea Grant Colleges?" Thus originated the idea of a National Sea Grant College Program. Given the importance placed on the oceans during the 1960s, the Spilhaus concept rapidly became reality. With support from the academic community, led by Spilhaus and John Knauss, then dean of the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, the Sea Grant idea attracted the attention of Congress. Under the leadership of Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Congressman Paul G. Rogers of Florida, the National Sea Grant College and Program Act (Pub. L. 89-688) was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 15, 1966.

The fledgling Sea Grant Program was initially housed at the National Science Foundation, and the first grants were awarded in 1968. With the formation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sea Grant was moved to that agency in the early 1970s. By 1974 grants had been made to twenty-three institutional programs in coastal and Great Lakes states.

Operating Concepts

The National Sea Grant College Program operates under authorization of the Sea Grant Act, which is consistent in concept and intent with the original 1966 law. Sea Grant grew out of a desire to achieve preeminence in oceanography and to support education and research in the marine sciences. The current version of the act explicitly states that the objective is to "increase understanding, utilization, and conservation of the Nation's ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources by providing assistance to promote a strong educational base, responsive research and training activities, and broad and prompt dissemination of knowledge and techniques, assessment, development, and multi-disciplinary approaches to environmental problems." Sea Grant's mission is to engage the nation's research universities in management-critical issues relating to coastal and ocean resources. The mechanism used is federal sponsorship of grants to universities for education, research, and information transfer to users through an extension service.

Eligibility, qualifications, and responsibilities for sea grant programs are set forth in the act and the Federal Register (Vol. 44, No. 244). A sea-grant program is a university-based program administered by an academic institution or consortia. Responsibility for designation of sea-grant colleges rests with the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Sea-grant colleges receive funds through federal grants that require matching funds from nonfederal sources at 50 percent of the federal portion. Special provisions in the act also allow NOAA to make grants to sea-grant institutions by "passing through" funds from other federal agencies on a nonmatching basis.

Magnitude and Scope

In 2001 Sea Grant managed about $100 million in funds annually from federal and matching sources. Approximately 75 percent of those funds are invested in grants for the core operations of the thirty designated sea grant institutional programs. Most of the remainder is distributed through a national competitive process open to all programs. Each of these institutions is responsible for developing an integrated program for addressing management-critical issues important to the state, region, and nation. This is done through merit-reviewed research, education, and outreach projects. Emphasis is placed on engaging users and stakeholders, including federal, state, and local agencies.

Sea Grant programs draw upon academic talent not only at the sponsoring institution but also through a wider network of more than three hundred participating universities. Annually, more than 800 individual projects are funded, 300 extension specialists engaged, and about 500 graduate fellowships supported nationally. In the three-year period between 1997 and 1999, more than 2,500 journal articles and publications were produced. Overall, about 60 percent of available funds are expended on merit-based research, 27 percent on outreach, and 5 percent on precollege training programs.

Sea Grant programs focus on three broad portfolios: economic leadership, coastal ecosystem health and public safety, and education and human resources. A broad range of multidisciplinary topics are addressed, including aquaculture, aquatic nuisance species, coastal community development, estuarine research, fisheries habitats and management, coastal hazards, marine biotechnology, marine engineering, seafood safety, and water quality. Educational efforts involve targeting K12 teachers and their students, mentoring college and graduate students conducting research projects, and transferring useful technology to coastal residents and businesses.

While Sea Grant has yet to gain the stature and resources its founders envisioned, it has been a highly productive investment of public funds and has made significant contributions through its science, education, and extension programs. With the enormous growth in, and the economic importance of, the nation's coasts and associated habitats, the demand for Sea Grant's services continues to increase dramatically.

Athelstan Spilhaus's brainchild promises to increase its contributions to building the United States' capacity to manage its coastal resources in the future. The establishment of a Sea Grant Program in Korea portends an international dimension as well.


Miloy, John. 1983. Creating the College of the Sea: The Origin of the Sea Grant Program. College Station: Texas A&M University Sea Grant Program.

National Research Council. 1994. A Review of NOAA National Sea Grant College Program. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Sea Grant Extension Review Panel. 2000. A Mandate to Engage Coastal Users. Corvallis: Oregon Sea Grant.

Omelczenko, Victor, ed. 2000. National Sea Grant College Program Biennial Report 19981999. Silver Spring, MD: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ryan, Paul R., ed. 1988. "Sea Grant Education, Research, Advisory Services." Oceanus: The International Magazine of Marine Science and Policy 31 (3). Woods Hole, MA: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Sea Grant Association. 1985. Sea Grant: Past, Present and Future (Twentieth Year Commemorative Anniversary). Narragansett: University of Rhode Island.

Sea Grant Association. 1993. The National Sea Grant College Program 19871992. Seattle: Washington Sea Grant Program.

internet resource

Baird, Ronald C. 2001. "Toward New Paradigms in Coastal Resource Management: Sea Grant as International Role Model." Oceanology International Americas. <>.

Ronald C. Baird