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Sea Grant research faces uncertain future

Coastal states throughout the nation have come to depend on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant programs for research and education on issues ranging from storm damage, erosion and sea level rise to aquaculture.

But those 33 university based programs face an uncertain future under President Trump’s budget proposal, which would cut the entire sea grant program.

Among those research programs is a study of a build-up of tiny, almost invisible plastic particles, known as microplastics, in the Delaware Bay.

Jonathan Cohen, along with three graduate students and a technician are working on this project at the University of Delaware. They’re trying to understand how microplastics have been dispersed throughout the bay, and how they affect things like fish that eat them.

He says the work they’re doing could lead to "stronger collaborations with fishermen to understand how microplastics could be affecting fisheries that they’re depending on."

"We certainly don’t want a situation where if microplastics do become a larger issue in crab fisheries or oyster fisheries, for the fishermen to be caught blindly by that."

Their research is being funded through the Delaware Sea Grant program. But it’s work that would be largely impossible if President Trump’s proposed cuts to the sea grant program are enacted. Cohen says that’s "disconcerting."

"There’s a lot of important questions that scientists are addressing," he says. "And a lot of questions the state has raised that organizations like Sea Grant can be a meaningful conduit of connecting the state to universities."

While Cohen can only wait to see how the budget shakes out, the University of Delaware is taking a more proactive approach.

Mohsen Badiey, the acting dean of UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment--home to Delaware Sea Grant, has been meeting with Sea Grant staff to assess the possible impact of the proposed cuts here. He says there’s "a sense of anxiety among all the programs that what impact these cuts would have in their local communities and to the research that they have been providing all these years."

Delaware Sea Grant distributed $1.1 million in federal money to support 19 research projects last year. It also gave $200,000 to extension and education programs and $82,000 to community outreach. The money supported nine graduate students and one fellow. If that funding disappears and projects like Cohen’s go away, Badiey says Delaware’s coast could see dramatic changes without the resources to explain them.

"In times that the environment is changing, we need to adapt to that change," he says. "We need to be able to do research and be proactive with that kind of change so we can adapt in a logical manner and manage that adaptation rather than let the environment do things we can’t control."

Scientists are looking to Congress to intercede and make changes - producing a final budget much different from the Trump Administration's blueprint. Delaware Sea Grant’s director of environmental public education Mark Jolly Van Bodegraven is trying to be optimistic.

"The national sea grant and all the state sea grant programs, as we’re discussing moving forward, feel that we can make the case very effectively to the public and to the Congressional delegations that what we do is cost effective, makes a real impact locally," he says.

Congress has passed a stopgap spending measure that will last until September. So for now, Jonathan Cohen says there’s not much he and his students can do "but continue our work."

"We have funding on projects and we have obligations on those projects," he says. "And those projects are leading to interesting findings and that’s what we’re trained to do."

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

Katie Peikes came to Delaware from Logan, Utah, where she worked as a municipal government reporter for a newspaper while simultaneously serving as a correspondent for Utah Public Radio covering science, technology, transportation and features. She has also contributed as an intern to other member stations including WNPR News in Hartford, Connecticut and WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her interest in science and technology news comes from the opportunities she had to cover environmental stories in Utah. She has published numerous pieces on Cache County’s air quality, water quality, waste management and solar energy.
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