45 Years of Texas Sea Grant

May 5, 2016

In 1971, four universities were the first to achieve Sea Grant College status: Oregon State University, University of Rhode Island, Texas A&M University, and University of Washington. Photo courtesy Dr. John C. Calhoun Jr.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Sea Grant College and Program Act in 1966, establishing the Sea Grant Program. Five years later, the first four universities, including Texas A&M University, achieved Sea Grant College status.

Nationally, today’s Sea Grant is a network of 33 programs based at top universities in every coastal and Great Lakes state, Puerto Rico, and Guam. These programs represent partnerships between universities and the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), allowing Sea Grant to direct federal resources to pressing problems in local communities. By drawing on the experience of more than 3,000 scientists, engineers, public outreach experts, educators and students from more than 300 institutions, Sea Grant is able to make an impact at local and state levels, and serve as a powerful national force for change. 

The Sea Grant concept was the brainchild of Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus, who in the early 1960s saw the potential of the Land Grant system and its cooperative extension component for people who were struggling to make their living from the sea.

“Why, to promote the relationship between academic, state, federal and industrial institutions in fisheries, do we not do what wise men had done for the better cultivation of the land a century ago?” Spilhaus asked the assembled crowd during his 1963 keynote address to the American Fisheries Society. “Why not have ‘Sea Grant Colleges?’”

Spilhaus reflected on the thoughts that led to his historic words 33 years later, during an interview he gave to Texas Shores, Texas Sea Grant’s magazine, in 1996 for a story on the program’s 25th anniversary.

“Everyone involved with marine issues at that time worried about the relationship between industry, government and the universities,” he said a little less than two years before his death. “Land Grant Colleges had taken engineering, botany and academic subjects out of the colleges and put them to work on land. That proved to be so successful in bringing government, academia and the farmers together, why not have a Sea Grant Program? I said something during my address that caught everyone’s fancy — instead of land-based county agents, we would have county agents in hip boots carrying their knowledge to fishermen on trawlers and fishing vessels.”

Champions of Spilhaus’ concept included Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, Florida Rep. Paul Rodgers and Texas Rep. Olin Teague, whose district included the area around Texas A&M University. Three years after Spilhaus first mentioned the concept publicly, the National Sea Grant College and Program Act was law.

The fledgling Sea Grant Program was part of the National Science Foundation, and its first advisory panel included Dr. John C. Calhoun Jr., who was Texas A&M University’s Vice President and the Texas A&M University System’s Vice Chancellor for Programs.

In the late 1960s, the Sea Grant advisory panel was charged with reviewing university proposals from across the nation to determine where the first Sea Grant funds would be distributed. From his vantage point on the panel, Calhoun saw serious problems with Texas A&M’s proposal. He had a heightened awareness of marine issues gained from his service as science advisor to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall from 1963 to 1965.

“I thought the proposal that Texas A&M submitted was doomed for failure, with a focus on the Department of Oceanography rather than on the university as a whole,” Calhoun said in an email interview about a year before his death in late 2012 at age 95. “The A&M proposal in no way reflected bringing an entire university concern to bear on issues of the marine environment.”

He took that news to legendary Texas A&M University President and System Chancellor Earl Rudder. “Mr. Rudder’s response was typical of many of his responses when I would bring up an issue for his discussion. He said, in effect, to do what I needed to do to solve the problem,” Calhoun said.

He resigned from the NSF advisory panel because he didn’t think it was appropriate to remain while making the case for Texas A&M to be one of the original Sea Grant grantees with himself as its first director (a position he held in 1968-1972 and later returned to in 1974-1976). In the mid-1960s there was no program office at the university to launch such broad issues like Sea Grant for the university. However, Calhoun’s A&M System office did oversee programs like water resources and the Gulf University Research Consortium (GURC), he recalled.

“Realistically then, seeing no other place at A&M for a broad focus such as envisioned by the Sea Grant concept, I decided I had to undertake the Sea Grant directorship myself,” Calhoun said.

With Calhoun’s guidance, Texas A&M submitted a second and ultimately successful proposal that made it one of the first six universities to receive Sea Grant funds in 1969, and in 1971, it became one of the first four universities in the nation to have its Sea Grant efforts gain status as an institutional program.

In the intervening four and a half decades, Texas Sea Grant has worked to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources through funded research and extension professionals in the field. It unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas.

— From National Sea Grant College Program reports and “Ruby Year for a Texas Gem” by Mike L. Downey in Texas Shores, Winter 2012.

Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.