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We Should All Care About Sea Grant

Amidst all the anti-science rhetoric of the Trump administration, you may have overlooked one important item. The federal budget proposed by the White House eliminates Sea Grant, and that should concern us all.

Sea Grant is a $73 million program administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that funds research, education, communication, and extension through 33 universities in every coastal and Great Lakes state (The proposed budget targets NOAA for a total of $250 million in cuts in coastal research). You can see where Sea Grant programs are located here.

This week, the president is signing an executive order that will overturn many of the Obama-era regulations to curb the carbon emissions that the vast majority of scientists agree contribute to climate change. Sea Grant programs conduct research and provide education about the impacts of climate change on our oceans and how coastal communities can work to deal with the consequences of climate change. Given the President’s disbelief in human roles in climate change (he has called climate change a “hoax”), the proposed elimination of Sea Grant is not surprising.

What the science shows us, however, is that the global average surface temperature has increased by about 1.4° F since 1900, resulting in warming oceans, sea level rise, and declines in Arctic ice as a result of increased concentrations of C02 and other greenhouse gases.

Sea Grant research and education are vital forces to help coastal communities manage the effects of climate change. My own school, Oregon State University, is a Sea Grant institution. Oregon’s commercial seafood industry is a significant element of the state’s economy. Research by my Sea Grant colleagues has examined the impact of ocean acidification on shellfish and the effects of rising sea levels on the estuaries key to the state’s fisheries.

Significantly, Sea Grant also supports crucial work beyond climate change. My friend and colleague, Dr. Tuba Özkan-Haller, studies waves, such as rip currents and tsunamis. Her recent Sea Grant project involved creating a wave forecasting tool for the Oregon coastline. One result of this research is an online tool that helps fishers plan for safer fishing expeditions. Another application allows wave forecasts near navigational inlets, such as the mouth of the Columbia River, which help bar pilots determine navigational safety.

When I asked Tuba about her Sea Grant work, her answer revealed one of the primary reasons the program is so important. Beyond its significant research, this program touches local communities. In 2015-16, more than 184,000 people engaged in informal education opportunities offered by Oregon Sea Grant.

Tuba explained that most of her Sea Grant projects have involved significant outreach and engagement with relevant coastal communities. She pointed to her work with Sea Grant extension agents around tsunami evacuation planning. “The Sea Grant extension folks are highly skilled in facilitating these conversations,” she remarked. “[They] have an extensive background in outreach and (perhaps more importantly) engagement of stakeholder groups and have deep and meaningful connections into the communities that they serve. Sea Grant is seen to be an impartial intermediary and facilitator when it comes to many issues that affect our coastal communities, a role that is dearly needed and would be sorely missed.”

Another of my colleagues, sociologist Dr. Lori Cramer, has worked on addressing issues of vulnerable populations on the Oregon coast. One study examined social factors affecting tsunami evacuation and, using a smart phone application to map positions during evacuation drills, helped participants understand their risks and evacuation abilities. A second study by Lori and another OSU sociologist, Dr. Flaxen Conway, examines the effect of the aging of commercial fishers on two rural, fishing dependent Oregon communities.

Tuba noted that a further significant component of Sea Grant is its encouragement of involvement by students. Sea Grant gives students hands-on experience in marine science research, management, and policy. In 2015-16, 60 Oregon Sea Grant student scholars took jobs related to their degrees within two years of graduating. Tuba said, “Sea Grant always encourages graduate student involvement in the projects and gives the students many opportunities to share their work with the scientific community as well as stakeholders. As a result, Sea Grant funded students tend to be very well-rounded and aware of the implications of their work within multiple realms, including the scientific community as well as the coastal communities.”

Sea Grant also has significant economic impact. In 2015-16, that impact in Oregon alone was over $8 million in economic benefit to the state. Nationally, the economic impact of Sea Grant was $575 million.

The Trump administration says Sea Grant programs are primarily state and local projects, which makes them less of a priority for the federal government. But this narrow thinking misses the larger impact of Sea Grant. OSU’s Jane Lubchenco, a former NOAA administrator, told the Washington Post, “The federal dollars leverage a lot of additional financial resources,” and that cutting Sea Grant would harm states, many of which, as the Post noted, supported Trump in the general election.

While Sea Grant projects may be local, the program’s impact is global. The oceans are essential for all of us. Our oceans affect weather and economies. Two-thirds of the world’s population live within about sixty miles of a coastline, and, in the U.S., one out of every six jobs is marine-related.

Sea Grant is a small investment with a large return. Allowing the anti-science and climate change denying forces of the current administration to eliminate this program would be short-sighted and detrimental to the health of our oceans, our planet, and human life.

I grew up in Georgia, several hours drive from the ocean, but my family spent a week during the summers in Panama City or Daytona Beach, Florida or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I didn’t even know oceans could be cold until I moved to the West Coast. I never thought much about oceans other than the joys of body-surfing, sunbathing, and shell-collecting back in those days.

But now, because of my researcher friends and OSU’s Sea Grant program, I do think about the oceans. We all should, and we all should be concerned about Sea Grant because we all stand to lose if the research, education, and outreach of Sea Grant programs is eliminated. I don’t think I’m overstating to conclude that the quality of life in our coastal communities and on our planet may depend on it.

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