Sea Grant: A Science Partnership Serving America’s Coasts

Sea Grant, a program within NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, is a nationwide network of 30 university-based programs that work with coastal communities. The National Sea Grant College Program engages this network of universities in conducting scientific research, education, training, and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of our aquatic resources.

Map showing the 30 state Sea Grant programs

The National Sea Grant College Program works closely with the 30 state Sea Grant programs located in every coastal and Great Lakes state and Puerto Rico. Click image for larger view.

Established in the 1960s with the mission to understand, manage, and conserve our nation's coastal resources, Sea Grant has grown into a nationwide network of 30 university-based programs engaging over 3,000 professionals and students. Administered by NOAA, the Sea Grant program includes every U.S. coastal and Great Lakes state and Puerto Rico and links federal and university researchers to promote better understanding, conservation, and use of America's coastal resources.

This article briefly reviews the origins of NOAA's Sea Grant program and then explores how this successful federal-university partnership program is helping to make a difference in tending to our coasts.


Sea Grant Origins: A Brief History

Sea Grant was born from the innovative mind of oceanographer, inventor, and writer Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus, who first suggested the idea of a Sea Grant College Program in 1963, at the 93rd meeting of the American Fisheries Society. Spilhaus' idea was to develop a system of universities dedicated to ocean research, based on the already successful land-grant college system, which was established in 1862.

Interest in the Sea Grant concept grew, much of it sparked by a 1964 editorial written by Spilhaus that appeared in Science magazine. In the editorial, Spilhaus stated that the "[e]stablishment 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 exploitation of the sea."

As American interest and excitement turned to science and the possibility of reaping economic benefits from the vast resources of the seas, the notion of a Sea Grant College Program gained enthusiasm.


The National Sea Grant College Act

In 1965, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island introduced legislation to establish Sea Grant colleges on campuses nationwide, as centers of excellence in marine and coastal studies. The National Sea Grant College Act was passed in 1966, and Congress thus established an academic, industry, and government partnership that would enhance the nation's education, economy, and environment into the 21st century.

Sea Grant officially became part of NOAA in 1970, following the establishment of the agency. One year later, in 1971, four universities became the first to achieve Sea Grant College status: Oregon State University, the University of Rhode Island, Texas A & M University, and the University of Washington.


Sea Grant Today

Sea Grant educators and extension agents offer students and their teachers a broad variety of field, laboratory, and classroom experiences to increase their knowledge of the world of water.

Sea Grant educators and extension agents offer students and their teachers a broad variety of field, laboratory, and classroom experiences to increase their knowledge of the world of water. Photo courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant, Dave Brenner.

Today, 30 university-based programs are part of the Sea Grant network, engaging over 3,000 scientists, engineers, extension agents, educators, communications specialists, and students drawn from over 300 institutions. This unified group is focused on understanding topics such as coastal communities and economies, coastal hazards mitigation, ecosystems and habitats, aquaculture, fisheries and seafood technology, marine biotechnology, the urban coast, ocean technology, and education.

Sea Grant tackles these important, yet complex issues in an open and competitive environment focused on science management, capacity building, and service enterprise. By creating new knowledge through research, and then transferring science-based information to users through outreach, Sea Grant makes a difference in the understanding, assessment, development, use, and conservation of our nation's ocean and coastal resources.

  • Research: Gets resources to problems identified by coastal residents; businesses; and local, regional, state, and federal agencies. Approximately 500 competitively funded research projects are supported by Sea Grant each year across the full spectrum of marine and coastal sciences.
  • Education: Provides training and curriculum development for K-12 educators to bring the sciences into the classroom; fellowship opportunities for policy study in Washington, DC and for work with industry; and support for graduate research assistants. Sea Grant supports approximately 650 graduate and 200 undergraduate students each year.
  • Extension: Allows the rapid transfer of scientific information in forms that are readily understood by coastal communities and decision makers. Approximately 300 agents connect community residents to the resources of the nation's top universities to address locally identified problems. Integrated teaching, research, and public service enable rapid research-based responses to critical, emerging issues.
  • Communications: Serves as an honest broker of Sea Grant information to a wide range of audiences using multimedia approaches. Approximately 70 Sea Grant communications staff keep the public informed about current research and technology in the marine and aquatic sciences.

Sea Grant also supports open and competitive scientific advancement, providing federal funding for research conducted within the Sea Grant network through several mechanisms. For all Sea Grant awards, state programs must match the federal support, meaning that Sea Grant projects truly are partnerships.


The Sea Grant Organization

Sea Grant has three main organizational elements: the National Sea Grant Office, the National Sea Grant Review Panel, and the Sea Grant Association.

Sea Grant’s Coastal Community Development Program assists coastal communities

Sea Grant’s Coastal Community Development Program assists coastal communities in their efforts to protect their environmental amenities, strengthen their economies, and improve their quality of life. Click image for larger view and image credit.

The National Sea Grant Office (NSGO) is a federal office and is NOAA's primary connection to the Sea Grant programs, universities, and multiple coastal constituencies. The main purpose of NSGO is to administer the Sea Grant program.

The National Sea Grant Review Panel was established in 1976 to advise the Secretary of Commerce, the Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the Sea Grant Director on the direction, operations, and performance of the National Sea Grant College Program. The panel is composed of 15 members, no less than eight of whom have expertise in marine science. Other panel members are individuals with expertise in education, marine affairs and resource management, extension services, state government, industry, economics, planning, or other expertise regarding ocean, coastal, or Great Lake resources.

The Sea Grant Association (SGA) represents the state Sea Grant programs as a non-profit membership of universities that house Sea Grant programs. SGA is the mechanism for programs to coordinate activities, suggest regional and national priorities to NSGO, and provide a unified voice for Sea Grant institutions on ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes issues.



Programs such as Sea Grant help us to explore coastal and marine science and our connection to the world’s oceans.  Through research, education, and outreach activities, Sea Grant has helped position the United States as a world leader in marine research and the sustainable development of coastal resources. Sea Grant activities exist at the nexus of local, state, national, and sometimes international interests. In this way, local needs receive national attention and national commitments are fulfilled at the local level. In short, “Sea Grant is there.” 

Contributed by Amy Painter, NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research