Already contending with a warming Gulf of Maine and declining fisheries, Maine’s Sea Grant program, responsible for delivering practical scientific know-how to coastal fishing communities, now faces an existential political threat — and not for the first time in its long history. — Will Grunewald
Lyndon Johnson signs legislation for a national network of Sea Grant colleges. One of the plan’s earliest advocates in DC, Dana Wallace, was a researcher at Maine’s Sea and Shore Fisheries Department, who advised key senators (including a young JFK) on fisheries law. Sea Grant, Wallace believed, would improve coastal industries the way the land-grant system advanced agricultural science a century earlier.
UMaine receives its first Sea Grant funds, totalling $100,300. Some of that money goes toward a laboratory seawater system at the university’s recently built Darling Marine Center. The rest is divvied up between faculty members in diverse departments, from economics to agriculture to veterinary science, who collaborate to study shellfish farming potential in a cold-water environment, kick-starting Maine’s oyster industry .
Ronald Reagan proposes gutting Sea Grant funding. Republican Maine senator Bill Cohen defends the program as “invaluable,” and UMaine sea studies director Malvern Gilmartin calls it “the most singly important bridge between academicians and the guy who’s making a buck out of the ocean.” For years, the administration tries to end Sea Grant, but Congress repeatedly restores its budget.
Maine Sea Grant teams up with UMaine Cooperative Extension to create a Marine Extension Team, stationing experts from Wells to Eastport, to help communities address ecological, fisheries, and sustainability issues. Before 1999, outreach work was more limited in scope and duration. Since then, communications director Catherine Schmitt says, other Sea Grant colleges have aimed to model Maine’s extension program.
After sharing its official Sea Grant college status with University of New Hampshire since earning that designation in 1980, UMaine receives full, independent standing. Currently, 33 Sea Grant colleges nationwide share a $73 million budget. Maine gets $1.3 million of that, plus $700,000 from the state, and more in grants and contributions. In the past four years, the program generated $22 million for local economies.
Donald Trump proposes a spending plan that would eliminate Sea Grant funding entirely. Without federal support, Maine Sea Grant director Paul Anderson says he expects UMaine would rethink the very existence of the program. Congress ignored Trump for the short-term, but come September, when the fiscal year ends, Sea Grant might once again find itself in choppy political waters.