Sea Grant: Science Serving Florida’s Coast

Disaster in the Gulf

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 workers and exposed a deep-sea wellhead that began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Until the spill was capped 87 days later, more than 210 million gallons of crude oil poured into the Gulf, with devastating effects on marine life ecosystems and fisheries along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Throughout that summer, many people had questions about how the spill would affect them. Was oil washing up on the beaches? Was wildlife dying? Was seafood contaminated? What legal and financial help was available to businesses affected by the spill? What could be done to help?

Fortunately, Sea Grant Extension agents in communities along the Gulf coast were on hand to help people understand and cope with the disaster. Sea Grant is a national network of colleges and universities engaged in research, education and extension activities to help protect coastal communities and promote responsible use of resources from our oceans and lakes. Immediately after the spill began, Florida’s Sea Grant program jumped into action, producing news releases and fact sheets to help people identify oil slicks and tar balls, decontaminate their vessels, seek financial and legal help, and understand the effects of oil and oil dispersants on wildlife and human health. UF/IFAS Extension Sea Grant agents conducted training courses on quick and accurate seafood inspection and answered public questions about seafood safety. Long-term research studies were quickly adapted to study the effects of the spill on marine ecosystems. States along the Gulf are still recovering from the BP oil spill, but that recovery would not have been possible without the help of Sea Grant.

Satellite image of Gulf oil spill, 2010. Source: NASA/GSFC, via Wikimedia Commons

“Why not have Sea Grant Colleges?”

Sea Grant was born on the shores of Lake Michigan in the 1960s, the brainchild of an inventive and visionary optimist named Athelstan Spilhaus. A native of South Africa, Spilhaus joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in 1936 and soon began engineering instruments used in oceanography, meteorology and by the U.S. military. Among his later accomplishments, he was named dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology, planned an experimental city, wrote a nationally syndicated comic strip about future technology, was appointed an UNESCO ambassador, invented a space clock, designed satellites for NASA and authored many books, including one on mechanical toys. He may even have inadvertently created the famous rumor of a UFO crash when an array of weather balloons he helped design landed in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.

During an address to the American Fisheries Society in 1963, Spilhaus first proposed a system of Sea Grant universities based on the successful Land Grant university model. “Why do we not do what wise men have done for the better cultivation of the land a century ago?” he asked, “Why not have Sea Grant colleges?” Envisioning a future landscape of undersea farms and ranches, Spilhaus expanded on his remarks in an influential op-ed piece published in the journal Science the next year: “Establishment of the land-grant colleges was one of the best investments this nation ever made. That same kind of imagination and foresight should be applied to the exploitation of the sea.” Taking up Spilhaus’ proposal, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Congressman Paul Rogers of Florida introduced Sea Grant bills on Capitol Hill, and in 1966 Congress passed the National Sea Grant College Program Act. The Act allowed the National Science Foundation (and later the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) to fund research, education and outreach through marine advisory programs based at participating universities.

Panel from Dr. Spilhaus’ syndicated comic, ‘Our New Age,’ ca. 1962
Athelstan Spilhaus (standing, right) at the announcement of plans for the building and launching of the Explorer 1 satellite, 1955. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Early Sea Grant–MAPs and Sharks

The Florida Sea Grant program began in 1972 at the University of Florida. Since public outreach was an important part of the Sea Grant mission from the start, the Marine Advisory Program (MAP) was immediately set up to do Sea Grant’s extension work in coastal communities, with Sea Grant agents placed in Key West, Palmetto, Largo and Panama City. Early MAP programs involved working with local communities on marine economics, seafood inspection training, coastal planning and 4-H youth education. In 1975, when the nation’s moviegoers were gripped by “Jaws” fever, Florida Sea Grant hosted an international conference called “Sharks and Man—A Perspective.” More than 250 participants from around the world came to discuss shark biology and behavior, shark attack protection, the impact of sharks on beach communities and fishing and tourist industries, and sharks as a global food source. In the 1980s, MAP was officially renamed Florida Sea Grant Extension, and a permanent marine education center was established at Marineland, south of St. Augustine.

Florida Sea Grant Today

Today, Florida Sea Grant Extension works to protect sealife and marine ecosystems, as well as the communities and businesses that rely on the ocean for their livelihood. Twenty-seven Sea Grant extension agents and statewide specialists live and work in coastal communities throughout the state, providing their expertise and leading educational programs on a number of topics, including:

  • Marine Life Ecosystems–Sea Grant Extension has developed curricula for teaching the biology and ecology of manatees, dolphins and whales in Florida’s elementary school classrooms.
  • Invasive Species–UF/IFAS Extension is using publications and social media to share the latest Sea Grant research about lionfish, green mussels and other invasive species that threaten the health of our shores and coral reefs.
  • Coastal Planning–Sea Grant Extension helps coastal communities plan for their future through workshops on marine hazard resilience, climate change and sea-level rise.
  • Scalloping–Each summer, scalloping has been growing in popularity along Florida’s Gulf coast; Sea Grant Extension provides information about the best places to scallop and how to harvest scallops safely and responsibly.
  • Catch and Release Fishing–Florida is still the fishing capital of the world–largely because it carefully manages its valuable marine resources. Florida Sea Grant has been conducting research on how to safely handle and return fish to their deep water habitats, and shares that research through Sea Grant Extension programs.
  • Safe Seafood — Florida Sea Grant provides training in seafood inspection and handling to ensure that our seafood supply is fresh and safe.
Florida Sea Grant agent Douglas Gregory tags a Florida lobster in the West Sambos Ecological Reserve in Monroe County. Photo by Thomas Wright

The UF Oyster Recovery Team

A follow-up to the BP oil disaster helps to illustrate how Florida Sea Grant combines research and Extension to help coastal communities in need. In 2012, the oyster harvest in Apalachicola Bay experienced an unprecedented decline. Many felt that oil from the BP spill was to blame. Florida Sea Grant and UF/IFAS responded by forming the UF Oyster Recovery Team to research the cause of the decline and work with local businesses towards solutions. Research showed that a combination of factors, including recent droughts and high salinity in the bay, rather than oil, were responsible for the decline. The recovery team has since been working with state agencies and local governments to obtain funding to restore the oyster reefs, to manage their resources sustainably, and to bring Apalachicola Bay’s economy back from the brink.

We may still be a long way from the kind of undersea farms and ranches Athelstan Spilhaus imagined, but thanks to his vision, Sea Grant is working today to preserve the health and prosperity of all those living at the water’s edge.

For more information about Florida Sea Grant, visit

Florida Sea Grant agent Sonya Wood Mahler, retrieves fishing line and other debris from under the Perdido Key Bridge in Pensacola. Photo by Larry Mahler



Florida Cooperative Extension Service. 1973 Annual Report.

Florida Cooperative Extension Service. 1975 Annual Report.

Noble, H.B. 1998. “Athelstan Spilhaus, 86, Dies; Inventor With Eye on Future.” New York Times, April 1.

Nordlie, T. 2013. “Oyster Recovery Team Report: Drought and Salinity Major Issues, Not Oil.” UF/IFAS News, April 25.

Zimmerman, D. 2013. “Apalachicola Update: Funding Awarded for Restoration of Oyster Bars.” Florida Sea Grant News, November 12.


Posted: April 22, 2014

Category: Smith-Lever, UF/IFAS Communications, UF/IFAS Extension
Tags: Extension 100 Years, Sea Grant, Smith-Lever Act, Smith-Lever Anniversary, UF/IFAS Extension

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