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35 Years at the Forefront of Aquatic Science

Photo by Chris J. Benson

Look back, for a moment, to the year it began… before Reserve Mining Company stopped dumping taconite tailings in Lake Superior… before health effects of PCBs and "acid rain" were common knowledge… before the smelt population crashed… and, just a few months before the November storm that took down the Edmund Fitzgerald. It was 1975, and the Marine Advisory Service took its first fledgling steps at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It would later become the state-wide Minnesota Sea Grant College Program we have today, and an integral part of the university system.

From the beginning, Minnesota Sea Grant (MNSG) delved into cutting-edge scientific research—projects that contribute to a better understanding of food webs, hypothermia, cryopreservation of fish semen, and how PCBs entered Lake Superior.

"We're all about the science… from fisheries and aquaculture to water quality and maritime infrastructure… we fund research studies that answer important questions that support Minnesota's aquatic resources and related economies," said Jeff Gunderson, MNSG's Director. The organization sets priorities and identifies research needs with input from staff, an advisory committee, partnering organizations, the scientific community, and the public.

Often, MNSG takes the lead, bringing parties together to study a subject of concern to residents or industries. In 2004 underwater sheet piling supporting giant steel ore docks in Lake Superior Harbor were reportedly corroding at an accelerated rate. MNSG worked with the Seaway Port Authority to assemble an advisory committee that brought in experts, private consultants, engineers, and scientists to examine potential causes, recommend mitigation measures, and identify the next research steps for the 13 miles of steel sheet piling that were corroding throughout the harbor.

In 2007, MNSG took the lead again in "green conferencing" with its Making a Great Lake Superior conference, which—along with outreach, education, and communications—is how MNSG reaches stakeholders and the public. Technology also has improved in 35 years, and MNSG has a following on Twitter, YouTube, and KUMD (103.3 FM), and provides subscription-based RSS feeds and podcasts of its radio show.

Just how important is such promulgation? According to Log Analyzer, in 2009, Minnesota Sea Grant's Web site had over 3.5 million pages viewed by over 744,000 visitors, and had more than 494,000 print and audio files downloaded. And that's not all. Over it’s 35 year history, MNSG has funded 169 research projects, and provided 213 research assistantships.

That's measuring value by the numbers. More telling is how the public relies on MNSG research and outreach for information about E. coli at area beaches, or endocrine disrupters (hormonal agents) causing adverse biological effects in fish, or when they want information on rip currents or preventing the spread of VHSV or building a rain garden to absorb stormwater runoff and prevent erosion and turbidity in area streams.

MNSG has earned the trust of the shipping industry as well. "We've become a resource for them with regard to the science," said Dale Bergeron, Minnesota Sea Grant's Maritime Extension Educator, adding, "They come to us for information on everything from dredging to ballast water."

Looking ahead to the next four years, MNSG will tackle challenges such as climate change, pollution control, and environmental sustainability, creating innovative ways to confront them. Sometimes "cutting edge" is more like science fiction—as with genetic biocontrol of invasive species.

Genetic biocontrol involves releasing genetically manipulated organisms into a specific habitat to disrupt reproduction and survival of a particular invasive target. This June, Sea Grant staff will co-host an international symposium drawing geneticists, biotech and risk assessment experts, and ecologists to review biocontrol technologies, assess risks, examine regulatory context, and look at economic analyses.


In addition to symposia on topics at the forefront of aquatic science, MNSG plans to celebrate its 35th anniversary by hosting a series of events throughout the year. Check the Web site at www.seagrant.umn.edu periodically for event updates.

Staff Science Writer, Sharon Moen, is working on a biography of the Sea Grant system founder, Athelstan Spilhaus—due out later this year. Finally, an entirely new section has been added to our Web site dealing with climate change.

Minnesota Sea Grant is one of 30 Sea Grant programs throughout the U.S. that are part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

By Nancy Hoene
March 2010

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