Numerous articles have been written about how the Trump administration has been undermining federal regulatory agencies and their ability to ensure that Americans have access to clean water, air, healthy oceans, and productive soils. Less has been written on the administration’s goal to eliminate or undermine dozens of non-regulatory agencies like the National Sea Grant College Program (Sea Grant), which conducts important research on ocean, marine, and coastal issues, and provides jobs and economic benefits for Americans.
Photo courtesy of Louisiana National Guard
Sea Grant operates through a network of partner universities, government bodies, and private enterprises to promote better understanding and more informed use of coastal and marine resources, while also making it possible for the nation to prepare for, adapt to, and mitigate the worst effects of climate change — like sea level rise, intensified hurricanes, and increasing variations in local weather patterns — particularly as they relate to US environmental security. Environmental security concerns include those from nuclear contamination, spent fuel, and waste; threats to energy resources; contamination, degradation, or depletion of essential environmental resources; and environmental problems from failing infrastructure that may threaten US security or undermine political and economic stability in the US or abroad.
Sea Grant is on the frontlines of efforts to ensure US environmental security issues are addressed by providing timely research on marine issues, while keeping pace with trends that affect the security of individuals, communities, states, and the nation as a whole. The agency also performs a vital role by researching opportunities for local and regional economic development in coastal states, and also improving resource conservation and management practices.
Sea Grant’s role in environmental security is most visible in disaster scenarios. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most powerful and devastating on record with Harvey, Irma and Maria hitting the US coastline directly. Because Sea Grant has a network of individuals already established in coastal states heavily impacted by these hurricanes (Texas, Puerto Rico, and Florida) it was able to quickly deploy resources at the local, state, and regional levels to research the impacts of the hurricanes. Sea Grant research has also informed reconstruction activities, including those involving local industries like aquaculture, fishing, and coastal tourism that are important to the US economy and environment.
More importantly, when properly funded, Sea Grant’s network of researchers can anticipate and mitigate the potential impacts of future hurricanes and show the value of things like mangrove reforestation, coral reef conservation, and levelheaded approaches to coastal development that will build resilience to storms. By developing plans prior to threats occurring, Sea Grant improves US environmental security before, during, and after a major event like a hurricane.
“Severe storms will continue to threaten Texas communities and economies, and Texas Sea Grant is increasing its efforts over the next four years help Texas communities develop more robust plans and practices that will increase their resilience to future extreme events,” Pamela Plotkin, Director of Texas Sea Grant, told Texas A&M Today.
Despite the real and growing environmental security risks in this country, Trump’s federal budget proposals for both 2018 and 2019 sought to entirely defund NOAA’s budget for the program. (The proposed 2019 budget would cut NOAA’s overall budget by more than 20 percent.)
“It was a shock,” Michigan Sea Grant Director James Diana told the Detroit Free Press when the proposed 2018 budget was first released. “I’m surprised they went at such a small program at this point in their budget. It seems like a small thing for them to be looking at.”
Congress ignored Trump’s requests to completely eliminate the program in 2018, but the bill funding the federal government through September 30 of this year provided $7.8 million less for Sea Grant than it provided last year, dropping Sea Grant’s budget from $72.8 million to $65 million. The Trump Administration is still recommending that the program be completely eliminated despite resistance from some Republican and most Democratic congressional representatives. It’s not yet clear how much funding the program will receive in 2019, but the current bill in the House of Representatives includes more than a 5 percent cut in funding relative to fiscal year 2017 funding.
The proposal is perplexing, especially given that the Sea Grant program is strongest in states and communities where he won the election in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina. But it’s not entirely surprising. Trump has promised to cut federal spending, and his proposed 2019 budget includes cuts to several programs that, like Sea Grant, conduct vital climate research. At the same time, the administration seems to be trying to shift the mission of NOAA — one of the primary federal agencies working on climate issues — away from climate research.
Sea Grant was first proposed by Congress in 1963 as a way to incentivize and integrate the efforts of private companies, universities, and state and federal agencies around coastal and marine research and management. Three years later, the idea was formalized with the passage of the National Sea Grant College and Program Act in 1966.
The National Sea Grant Library, the digital library and official archive for NOAA Sea Grant documents, makes clear that when the 89th congress passed the National Sea Grant College and Program Act of 1966, it created the first federal program mandated to support activity across the full spectrum of the marine sciences. In the act, Congress set forth an approach involving research, education, and outreach to promote the wise use of the nation’s coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes resources for a sustainable economy and environment.
The Sea Grant Act called for an organization that is science-based, national in scope, and committed to the transfer of scientific information to the public. The Sea Grant program operates on a simple premise — apply the intellect of experts with US universities and research institutions to the problems and opportunities associated with the use of marine resources. Over the last 50 years, the program has proven successful both domestically and internationally, informing policy in the US and increasing cross-border scientific interaction and cross-cultural understanding between nations with a collective interest in environmental security.
For example, the Texas Sea Grant College program has been working with Mexico to develop Sea Grant extension programs in the Yucatan Peninsula. By doing so, Texas Sea Grant recognizes that environmental security concerns, like hurricanes, do not respect the territorial boundaries of nation states. Furthermore, international cooperation is important toward ensuring both US environmental security and that of our traditional allies, even while Trump undermines our democratic alliances in favor of cooperating, and possibly colluding, with authoritarian autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un.
Sea Grant Texas has also provided consultative services to the Climate Center in Belize that developed as a result of a joint National Ocean Service/Caribbean Community climate adaptation program. The goal was to develop a framework to extend climate-based information to communities throughout the wider-Caribbean using the Sea Grant model of extension and education.
Sea Grant also has an even more significant economic impact domestically, both directly and indirectly.
“If President Trump and his administration actually took a second to look into their impact, they’d see that last year alone, Sea Grant supported over 20,000 jobs and generated $575 million in economic impact — which is more than a 850 percent return on investment,” US Senator Chris Murphy’s office said in a press release when the proposal to cut the program was first announced last year. “Clearly, these grants go a long way to help our economy and protect our environment.”
The Sea Grant network has programs in 30 universities with over 300 affiliated universities and several thousand researchers, educators, extension professionals, and students. These networks create a more resilient economy by informing management of coastal resources like fisheries and facilitating adaptation to our changing environment more rapidly.
The Sea Grant structure was designed to allow for significant autonomy at the state level and state’s rights have traditionally been a bedrock principle of the Republican Party. Most programs operate through a single university, leveraging state university resources as matching funds to those disbursed by the NSGO thereby saving the federal government dollars; another position rhetorically advocated by Republicans, although they often fail to deliver in practice (e.g. Editorial: Paul Ryan, budget hawk turned deficit buster, pulls the rip cord).
The Puerto Rico Sea Grant College program provides a unique example of work led by an American territory to ensure US environmental security. It is an educational program devoted to the conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine resources in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the Caribbean region. For over three decades the program has been working to promote sustainable development and the wise use of marine resources in the wider Caribbean region, particularly in the context of rapid climate change. It has also helped inform recovery efforts in Puerto Rico following the 2017 hurricane season.
Sea Grant program also identifies topics of concern to the nation as a whole, and coordinates cooperation and knowledge-building across different states. For example, in 2012, scientists started to notice that millions of starfish, which play an important role in ocean ecosystems and food webs, were dying from Alaska to Canada and down to Baja, Mexico. The Sea Grant network, along with partners across the nation, prioritized the issue, pooling financial resources and scientific expertise to identify the underlying cause of the death of starfish. In 2015, scientists finally identified the culprit, a pathogen known as a densovirus. (Read more about the disease.)
Sea Grant’s collaborates with other federal agencies as well. The US Department of Defense has identified climate change as a national security threat after recognizing the cost of relocating coastal naval bases due to sea level rise. The Department of Defense has partnered with Virginia Sea Grant to study climate-related risks to Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, the largest naval complex in the world, and plan for the future.
The National Sea Grant College program is a robust distributed network of people and organizations from local, state, and federal government agencies, the private sector, non-profits, and academic institutions. Eliminating this program would not only abolish a network of highly educated professionals that has evolved over decades, but it would also undermine local, state, national, and international efforts to study and prepare for stochastic events like climate change that are already leading to adverse impacts on the nation and its security. Finally, it would also undermine our future capacity to address the existential threat of climate change, subsequent sea-level rise, and the risk posed to ensuring healthy fisheries and economies highly dependent on marine and coastal resources.
You can take action by contacting your local and Congressional representatives and demand that they maintain funding levels for Sea Grant. If you’d like to be bold, argue for increased funding for Sea Grant to ensure America remains well placed to adapt to our changing environment in the twenty-first century, while relying on science over populist rhetoric.
NOTE: Material for this article was adapted from both a Marine Policy Journal article for which the writer served as lead author, and the final report written for the US Department of State’s Bureau of Ocean, Environment, and International Scientific Affairs, which provided additional funding for his work on Sea Grant International.