Florida Sea Grant Extension: Serving Coastal Communities, Economies and Environment

Every time a storm surge invades a coastal community, or fish wash up dead from red tide or algal blooms, or an oil spill spreads across the Gulf of Mexico, we’re reminded of the fragile nature of our marine and coastal ecosystems. Events like these are a double tragedy: they not only damage ecosystems and kill or displace marine life, but they also hurt coastal economies and the communities that depend on them. But it isn’t just environmental disasters that threaten our coastal environments and the coastal economies they support. Life, work, and recreation in Florida is a delicate balance between resource use and maintaining healthy environments that support our economy, and this is especially true in Florida’s coastal areas.

Managing this balancing act is a tall order, which is why Florida Sea Grant’s mission to conserve coastal resources and enhance economic opportunities for the people of Florida is an essential part of UF/IFAS Extension. Think of Florida Sea Grant as fulfilling the Land Grant mission in Florida’s coastal areas – both are dedicated to using teaching, research and Extension to help Floridians find sustainable ways to use natural resources, strengthen economies, protect the environment and improve quality of life.  Florida Sea Grant specializes in maintaining sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, preserving healthy coastal environments, building resilient communities and economies, and promoting environmental literacy and workforce development. Florida Sea Grant does this through student scholarships, grants for marine research, and Extension programs in coastal counties throughout the state.

UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant agents are distributed throughout Florida’s coastal counties and work with other Sea Grant agents, UF/IFAS specialists, federal and state agencies, county governments, NGO’s, local businesses and community leaders to make coastal communities more resilient, profitable and sustainable. Florida Sea Grant agents are strategically placed in the coastal communities they serve and there are Sea Grant agents in most of Florida’s coastal counties. There are also multicounty and regional agents, and statewide specialists whose expertise is brought to bear on problems wherever they occur. As with all Extension faculty, Sea Grant agents work in multiple capacities. They respond to local needs in their counties and work collaboratively and strategically to address regional and statewide needs. When there is an immediate need, such as providing community and industry assistance following a devastating hurricane, Sea Grant agents respond with an all-hands-on-deck attitude and philosophy.

Florida Sea Grant uses Work Action Groups (WAGs) to strategically plan and coordinate regional and statewide Extension programs, which often begin as local initiatives. This collaborative approach has strengthened the UF/IFAS Florida Sea Grant Extension program, benefitted coastal communities throughout the state, and made Florida Sea Grant the strongest Sea Grant Extension program in the country. There are WAGs for Aquaculture, Sustainable Marine Fisheries, Estuarine and Coastal Health, and Climate and Sea Level Rise. A fifth working group for Safe and Sustainable Seafood is planned after a qualified specialist is hired later this year. Florida Sea Grant also has an Extension specialist on a multistate, oil-spill science outreach team created in response to the BP oil spill disaster. Ad-hoc emergency response teams are established whenever communities require immediate assistance following hurricanes and other disasters and emerging needs.

Some examples of Florida Sea Grant Extension programs include important contributions in support of the shellfish aquaculture industry, which is based primarily out of Cedar Key but is expanding throughout the state. Florida Sea Grant Extension is also at the forefront of new aquaculture enterprises and is hosting a two-day workshop, “Pioneering Offshore Aquaculture in the Southeastern Gulf of Mexico,” this June in response to the first offshore aquaculture fish pen being deployed in Gulf waters. The workshop will feature expert presentations addressing issues, opportunities, and challenges facing offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico and an important outcome from this workshop will be to identify how Florida Sea Grant can assist development of this industry while balancing other commercial and environmental interests. The Fisheries WAG has a long history of assisting both commercial and recreational stakeholders and is creating a new Florida Friendly Sustainable Fishing Guide certification program that will educate fishing guides on sustainable practices and provide them a valuable marketing tool. Learning proper techniques for releasing fish unharmed is important for all anglers and Florida Sea Grant has a long history of promoting responsible fishing behaviors. They continue to expand this program and are completing development of educational videos that demonstrate how to safely return fish to depth that are suffering the effects of barotrauma. Some examples from the Estuarine and Coastal Health WAG includes educating coastal communities about using living shorelines as an alternative to seawalls; understanding, monitoring, and addressing problems associated with coastal water quality and marine debris; and, developing and teaching new modules on marine and coastal restoration through the Florida Master Naturalist Program. Our Climate and Sea Level Rise WAG recognizes that there is still confusion, doubt and denial regarding the very real threat that climate change poses to Florida’s coastal communities. In response, the WAG is developing a new educational series on climate and coastal resiliency designed to educate citizens and local governments about causes, consequences, and potential actions needed to address rising sea levels and the increased storm threat associated with climate change.

These are a few examples of Extension programs being developed and implemented by Florida Sea Grant agents and specialists. There are many other examples that could be provided and many more future programs that will developed in response to the everchanging challenges and needs in Florida’s coastal communities. To learn more about Florida Sea Grant’s Coastal and Marine Extension programs, be sure to check out a 90-minute Sea Grant session May 9 during the 2019 Extension Symposium when UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant agents will be highlighting programs conducted by the aquaculture, climate change and sea level rise, marine fisheries and estuarine and coastal health WAGs.

You can watch an Extension Connections discussion about Florida Sea Grant and its future with myself, Florida Sea Grant Director Karl Havens, and Associate Dean and Associate Director of Florida Sea Grant Extension Martin Main at this address: https://tinyurl.com/y7gwr8ng.

UF/IFAS photo.

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