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Two people in special hypothermia-prevention suits floating on their backs.

Univeristy of Minnesota researchers testing hypothermia suits in Lake Superior.

Minnesota Sea Grant turns 30

By Sharon Moen

Published on August 31, 2005

Look out, Hollywood! After 30 years of challenging research, the University of Minnesota Sea Grant program has enough footage and material for a blockbuster film. It has scrutinized Lake Superior with submersibles, boats, robots, and satellites. Its researchers have known numerous perils including vampire-like fish, blood-sucking leeches, and hypothermia. They've had run-ins with pirates on a lake in East Africa, and they've battled aliens (aquatic invasive species). Over the years, the program has documented how fish populations have plummeted, swelled, dwindled, and rebounded. As some 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.

Being a Sea Grant University

In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the first Morrill Act, which granted each state 30,000 acres of federal land to establish at least one college that would teach the working class agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanical arts, as well as other scientific and classical studies, so they may have a liberal and practical education.

The University of Minnesota became one of those colleges, known more commonly today as land-grant institutions. The designation essentially means that the U should remain accessible to all and apply its scholarly expertise to community problems.

In 1966, Congress instituted the National Sea Grant College Program Act to encourage the wise stewardship of marine resources through research, education, and outreach. The University of Minnesota became one of 30 universities to receive a sea grant designation and federal funding to support innovative marine research and education. With a special focus on Lake Superior, the U works in tandem on marine-life projects with other Sea Grant schools around the lakes, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Even though it's small, compared to the nation's 30 other Sea Grant programs (see sidebar), the Minnesota Sea Grant has administered nearly 150 research projects in its short history and boasts more than 300 research publications.

"We've covered considerable territory," says 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, 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 more than 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.)

"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."

To learn more about the program, see Minnesota Sea Grant.

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