The History of Maine Sea Grant

In 2016, we join our fellow Sea Grant programs across the country and the National Sea Grant College Program in celebrating our 50th anniversary of science serving America’s coast. Read on to learn about the origins of the national program, or skip to the history of Sea Grant in Maine.

The origins of the national Sea Grant program can be traced to the middle of the 20th century. As interest in science increased after World War II, Americans came to believe that scientific research and engineering could lead to responsible economic development. Dana E. Wallace of Maine, chair of an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission committee, outlined the parallel between American agriculture under Land Grant and the needs of America’s coasts and oceans.

In 1963, Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus, oceanographer, inventor, writer, grandly envisioned “a cooperative effort among academic, federal, state, and commercial institutions which would draw upon the intellectual strength of the great American universities to unlock the secrets and develop the great potential of the oceans.” He proposed a system of Sea Grant colleges to do for fisheries and other marine resources what Land Grant had done for agriculture and the ‘mechanic arts’ a century earlier. “We must seek through a welding together of science, art, literature, engineering, medicine, law, public administration, and politics to develop a public which will not only homestead our new spaces in the sea but colonize and civilize them through an integrated interdisciplinary education in the sea-grant universities,” said Spilhaus.

Inspired by the Spilhaus and Wallace visions, John Knauss organized a symposium at the University of Rhode Island to explore the Sea Grant idea. On October 17, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the the Pell-Rogers Sea Grant Colleges and Program Act, and the Office of Sea Grant was created within the National Science Foundation the following year (but was transferred to NOAA after its creation in 1970). “[NSF] taught us how to start and carry out the administrative technicalities of a program, but left program methods and content entirely to us. Most remarkable, and perhaps unique in a federal agency, we were told—and this is a direct quote—‘Don’t be afraid to take chances,’” Hal Goodwin and Bob Abel recalled.

 Sea Grant in Maine
In 1971, the University of Maine received the first “sea grant” of $100,300, awarded to the Darling Center and Dr. David Dean for projects related to the culture of resources in the cold water marine environment (marine aquaculture). Funds were distributed to faculty in the departments of agricultural engineering, resource economics, animal and veterinary science, food science, and mechanical engineering to adapt known techniques and to develop new methods for raising marine organisms in Maine’s unique coastal environment, and to create market demands for currently under-utilized marine resources of the region. Species of focus included the blue mussel, rock and jonah crabs, sea scallop, American oyster, and bay scallop. Sea Grant funds supported the sea-water system in the new lab at the Darling Center.

The Origin of Maine’s Marine Extension Team

Today’s Marine Extension Team, a partnership between Maine Sea Grant and University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has its roots in NOAA’s Marine Advisory Service, which was established in 1973. When NOAA was formed in 1970, plans were made to include advisory services in the new organization, because the Stratton Commission and other groups had recommended that NOAA establish a system for information transfer as part of its total functions. NOAA assigned Sea Grant responsibility for leading and coordinating the Marine Advisory Service, in part because in some states Sea Grant already was doing advisory work. In addition, the Sea Grant program and its philosophy permitted a flexibility that was unusual in governmental programs—a large measure of freedom to match marine resource needs with capabilities for meeting those needs.

Paul Ring, the first marine extension specialist in Maine, was based at the Darling Center and worked on recreation and coastal zone issues. In 1974, Mark Richmond joined the Advisory Service as an aquaculture technician, part of a network of cooperators in other marine-related organizations and institutions in Maine, including Cooperative Extension, College of the Atlantic, Department of Marine Resources, Maine Maritime Academy, Marine Trades Center in Eastport, and the Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute in Portland. Early extension activities included fishing business management workshops, courses in fishing safety that earned the Marine Advisory Program a Public Service Commendation from the US Coast Guard in 1983, and local clam flat management (learn more about Sea Grant’s history with fisheries). Several marine extension specialists were hired in the following decades. In 1999, interim extension leader Ron Beard helped create the memorandum of understanding between Sea Grant and Cooperative Extension that created the current Marine Extension Team.

The University of Maine becomes a Sea Grant College

In 1980, the Maine-New Hampshire Sea Grant Program became the first bi-state program in the country. When the Reagan Administration proposed to eliminate Sea Grant in 1982, Maine Center for Marine Studies Director Malvern Gilmartin defended the program, which he called “probably the most singly important bridge between academicians and the guy who’s making a buck out of the oceans.” In his testimony on behalf of Sea Grant, Senator Bill Cohen said, “The role of the Sea Grant program at the University of Maine in helping to develop and define marine resource usage policies has been invaluable.” Cohen placed special emphasis on multiple use planning and conflict resolution.

Maine and New Hampshire became independent Sea Grant programs in 2000, and the University of Maine received full National Sea Grant College status in 2004. In 2010, Maine Sea Grant celebrated 30 years of supporting “Marine Science for Maine People.”

Written by Catherine Schmitt, 2010.


Thomas, M.J. 2006. From Sea to Shining Sea (Grant)-Forty Years of Research through the National Sea Grant College Act. The SandBar 6 (1):19-22.

Seabrook Hull, E.W. 1979. The First Ten Years. Rockville, MD: NOAA.

Ostenso, Ned A. 1979. Memo accompanying “The First Ten Years” report. Rockville, MD: NOAA.

Rhode Island Symposium History. 1985.

Abel, R. and H. Goodwin. 1988. “The Halcyon Days of Sea Grant” in Oceanus 31 (3):3-4.

Eckles, Howard. 1974. New breed on the horizon. NOAA 4 (1), reprinted in NOAA Reports on Sea Grant, p. 16-19.