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Minnesota Sea Grant Celebrates 30-Year Anniversary

I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.

-Margaret Mead

Research – Three Decades of Superior Science

Sea lamprey researchers Peter Sorensen and Pete Maniak holding lampreys in a net at the University of Minnesota.

Sea lamprey researchers Peter Sorensen and Pete Maniak at the University of Minnesota.

Look out, Hollywood! After 30 years of challenging research, Minnesota Sea Grant has enough material for a blockbuster film. We’ve scrutinized Lake Superior with submersibles, boats, robots, and satellites. Our researchers have known numerous perils including vampirous fish, blood-sucking leeches, and hypothermia. They’ve had run-ins with pirates and battled aliens. Over the program’s history, we have documented how fish populations have plummeted, swelled, dwindled and rebounded. As scientists examined wastewater and runoff to fight pollutants washing off the land, others reported on contaminants that fell from the sky and seeped into Lake Superior possibly through household drains.

Two men test hypothermia suits by floating in Lake Superior.

Hypothermia suit testing on Lake Superior.

The movie of our discoveries, an action-drama, begins in a laboratory, possibly one where Sea Grant scientists pioneered techniques for inserting genes into curly strands of DNA. It involves efforts to identify and evaluate the flow of gender-bending chemicals into American’s natural waters and sub-zero techniques for storing fish sperm. It incorporates all that we discovered about primitive communication among fish or the heart-healthy qualities of siscowet oil, found in Lake Superior’s uniquely fat strain of lake trout.

Moving from the laboratory, we would send camera crews to the shores of Lake Superior where they could film researchers evaluating the economic transition of coastal communities from timber/taconite to tourism-based industry. The cameras would pan the cobbly beaches and river mouths where Sea Grant scientists stand hip-boot high catching steelhead, caddis fly larvae, or microscopic plants.

Then, as the movie moves towards its climax, the cameras and cast takes to the water searching for bacteria, zooplankton, and fish. Of course, eventually they would have to plunge deeper to immortalize the spawning beds of high-order predators like lake trout, which represent Superior's historic fisheries, and so filmgoers could see the mysterious giant rings that have formed in some of the deepest recesses.

Regardless of the attention of famous directors and glamorous stars, Minnesota Sea Grant has achieved critical acclaim. The program, which is small compared to the nation's 30 other Sea Grant programs supported by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has administered nearly 150 research projects in its short history and boasts over 300 research publications.

Outreach – 30 Years of Talking with More to Say

Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.

-Albert Einstein

Children smile as they react the lawrence the talking lake trout 'puppet'.

Children react to hearing Lawrence the Lake Trout speak.

Don’t let our talking animals fool you. For the last 30 years, Minnesota Sea Grant’s outreach programs and projects have been serious. We’ve extended the most accurate information we could mine from our researchers and the annals of science concerning fisheries, coastal communities, and lake ecosystems to Minnesotans and others beyond the state's lines. Our extension professionals have used multiple and innovative techniques to broadcast messages to specific audiences: publications, workshops, boat excursions, partnerships, culinary challenges, symposiums, lectures, poetry contests, radio, TV, the Internet, and yes -- talking animals.

"We’ve covered considerable territory," said Jeff Gunderson who has been working with Minnesota’s fisheries and aquaculture communities through Sea Grant for more than 25 years. "My favorite projects include helping rice patty operators deal with crayfish infestations (if you can’t beat 'em, eat 'em) and, more recently, helping to organize an expert inquiry into the accelerated corrosion occurring in the Duluth Superior Harbor."

Some outreach projects are epic, like the Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Information Center's efforts to share information to help prevent the spread of pests such as zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil (the center has produced and distributed over 3 million AIS identification cards, alone). Some projects are local, like 4-H meetings held to illuminate the finer points of identifying and filleting fish. Some projects are memorable, like the sea lamprey marketing project, where lampreys were sent to Portugal and also served to a panel of taste-testing officials in Duluth. (The Portuguese, who consider lamprey a delicacy, enjoyed Lake Superior lamprey but its mercury content exceeded export standards.)

Minnesota Sea Grant has produced over 200 outreach publications and products on topics of general interest (i.e., Superior Pursuit) to very specific ones (i.e., Information about the Diagnosis of Fish Diseases in the Upper Midwest). Many publications have resulted from extensive collaborations. Since 1995, over one million World Wide Web users have accessed information offered on Minnesota Sea Grant's Web site.

Minnesota Sea Grant has worked with a wide array of individuals and groups: from bed-and-breakfast owners to bait harvesters, from lake associations to teacher organizations. We've discussed many subjects, including water diversion, Great Lakes policy, genetically modified organisms and contaminants. Among Sea Grant's strengths is an ability to create forums in which polarized groups can make progress towards common goals; this was particularly evident when North Shore residents worked with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources personnel at the Treasures Under Pressure meetings.

"One of our challenges over the years is to not be too busy to respond rapidly to emerging issues," said Gunderson, the program's associate director. "Our ability to retain a dynamic and interactive rapport with the communities we serve is one of the qualities that makes our relatively small program so enormously effective."

Education – Soaking in Aquatic Science

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

-W. B. Yeats

Children working in a classroom.

You can soak in the sun and get soaked by rain, but Minnesota Sea Grant soaks people in aquatic science. Students are chief among our targets.

"Reaching young people as they accumulate knowledge and form values is critical," said Bruce Munson, head of the University of Minnesota Duluth's Department of Education. Many may remember Munson as the voice of Lawrence the Lake Trout and Minnesota Sea Grant's education expert.

"Although the time frame of generations makes measuring progress difficult, if you're interested in changing the future, you've got to educate those who will be active in that future," Munson said.

For about one human generation, Minnesota Sea Grant has immersed people in water-related discussions and activities. The program has awarded 188 research assistantships to University of Minnesota graduate students, offered numerous undergraduate opportunities, conducted teacher training and support, and participated in K-12 education.

Sea Grant research assistants give the research component of Sea Grant its muscle. Many have become fisheries experts, university professors, and natural resource professionals at federal, state, tribal, and non-profit organizations. Protégées of Minnesota Sea Grant influence the preservation, use, and maintenance of the nation's water resources by holding posts in Washington, D.C. and at national laboratories.

Post-graduates can compete for yearlong National Sea Grant fellowships. Coveted Knauss Marine Policy Fellowships have been awarded to 10 nominees from the University of Minnesota since 1988. These fellows have worked with senators, scientists and lobbyists, learning the ropes of science policy and politics in the nation's capital. Sea Grant also offers graduate fellowships in partnership with industry and NOAA fisheries.

From the early 80s through 1995, Minnesota Sea Grant supported Native American undergraduates studying aquatic sciences with the expectation that the students would eventually help manage reservation fisheries. Backed by the energy of Ruth Myers of the Grand Portage Band, Sea Grant partnered with Native American teachers and students to break cultural boundaries that usually prevent tribes from benefiting from aquatic science.

Sea Grant staff have used a variety of techniques to move aquatic science lessons into mainstream curriculums. The popularity of Lacustrian Letters (a bulletin offering aquatic science lessons) and of accredited training workshops (teachers studying aquatic science on the shores of Lake Superior) may be eclipsed by the impacts that Minnesota Sea Grant is making with online curricula and education. Water on the Web and associated projects, are helping set the standard for making the daily and dynamic associations between water and weather accessible to people within minutes.

"Over the years Sea Grant's research areas have broadened but the program has consistently shown that education is a priority," said Judy Zomerfelt, who, as the program's administrative assistant over its 30-year life, has trained and befriended numerous student employees. "From the summer Sea Camps we offered to Duluth kids to the graduates we send off to Washington, D.C., I know our messages are being carried into the future."

Minnesota Sea Grant: The Sequel

Due to the energy of its research program, the strength of its extension program, and the dedication of its staff, Minnesota Sea Grant has been awarded the highest honors possible in national reviews. After the camera flashes and applause surrounding our 30th anniversary have subsided, the program will continue to expand the edges of aquatic and coastal science in exciting and relevant directions.

"The challenges of managing freshwater resources create incredible opportunities for universities in the Great Lakes Basin," said Carl Richards, director of Minnesota Sea Grant since 1999. "In cooperation with the people of the region, universities can make significant contributions to preserving the Great Lakes through research, outreach, and education. It's my goal to see that Minnesota Sea Grant continues to lead at the interface between societal needs and university expertise well into the future."

From all of us at Minnesota Sea Grant, thanks for helping make our last 30 years meaningful and memorable.

By Sharon Moen
June 2005

Return to June 2005 Seiche

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