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Wisconsin Sea Grant Releases Biennial Report Addressing Progress On Organization’s 4 Pillars

Report Looks At Projects, Initiatives From 2018 To 2020

Harbor dredging near the St. Louis River estuary. 
Harbor dredging near the St. Louis River estuary. Aquatic Sciences Center (CC-BY-NC)

The Wisconsin Sea Grant recently released it’s biennial report addressing the organization’s progress on its four pillars: healthy coastal ecosystems; sustainable fisheries and aquaculture; resilient communities and economies; and environmental literacy and workforce development.

Part of the national Sea Grant, the Wisconsin Sea Grant has studied the Great Lakes for more than 50 years.

Jim Hurley, director of the Wisconsin Sea Grant, said it makes sense for the Great Lakes to be part of the Sea Grant because many of the issues that occur in the oceans and coasts also occur in the Great Lakes.

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“Issues like sea level rise,” he said. “We’ve seen tremendous fluctuations in Great Lakes water levels. Where they may be looking on the ocean coast at small increments of sea level rise, we’ve seen changes in Lake Michigan of 4 feet over the course of maybe five or six years.”

2020 was a unique year, Hurley said. Research proposals were slightly down, and communication and outreach strategies had to shift. Yet while the events went virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic, in some cases, they saw more engagement with a virtual audience than with live events, he said.

Funding for the program comes from the federal government and university partnerships. The Wisconsin Sea Grant is connected to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has partners across the state and country. Below are highlights from the 2018-20 report released in December.

Healthy Coastal Ecosystems

Hurley calls researching healthy and sustainable coastal systems and appropriately utilizing the resources of the Great Lakes the heart of the Sea Grant.

“We’ve seen major changes in the Great Lakes, especially if you look at fisheries,” he said. Research and work on contaminants like PCB, particularly in the Fox River and lower Green Bay, and invasive species in Lake Michigan have been major points of focus.

From the report:

  • So-called forever chemicals, known a PFAS, were detected in rainfall for the first time ever in precipitation samples.
  • A $120,000 two-year grant was used to build on past Sea Grant work to develop a wild rice toolkit for Native American communities.
  • Five nesting pairs of highly endangered piping plovers were found on the Cat Island chain of restored lands in the bay of Green Bay.

    Resilient Communities And Economies

    Hurley said Sea Grant staff are embedded in communities to help prepare them to deal with issues they are facing, or will face with changing ecosystems, such as rising sea levels.

    “Can we create some green infrastructure? How can we transfer information about how best to develop?” he said. “We always say that we’re neutral brokers of science. And that’s what we try to do. We try to bring the scientific needs to those communities.”

    From the report:

    • 582 feet: The highest monthly record for the Lake Michigan water level, set in April 2019. It broke the previous record set in 1986 by 3 inches.
    • 25 feet per year: The rate of erosion of the Kenosha Dunes natural area between 2018 and 2020. The Sea Grant and partners installed wave-breaking sills underwater to mitigate the water’s effects on the land.
    • 16 feet: The root depth of common ninebark, a shrub included on a recommended vegetation list by Sea Grant’s coastal engineer to help stabilize coastal bluffs.

    Sustainable Fisheries And Aquaculture

    The changing ecosystems of the Great Lakes has put pressure on many of the fish populations, Hurley said. For over 30 years, the Sea Grant has invested in research on aquaculture to help fill the gaps in the species population.

    “What we’re really seeing start to burgeon is recirculating aquaculture systems,” he said. “Which are contained systems of recirculating water, so we wouldn’t use as much water in our system, and we could grow fish.”

    From the report:

    • Researchers spent 118 days on Lake Michigan to gather trawl catch data, which led to a change in a state rule and extended the fishing season.
    • Three fish diseases — viral hemorrhagic septicemia, columnaris and saprolegniasis — were studied by Sea Grant researchers that impact both wild and aquaculture fish.

    Environmental Literacy And Workforce Development

    Hurley said the Sea Grant’s approach to education is to follow the “teach the teacher” method.

    “We feel that in education we’re more effective and cover more if we help train teachers,” he said. “We have opportunities for teachers to spend some time on a research vessel in the Great Lakes … we have a marine debris program … to send to teachers so that they can understand concepts like microplastics and other things that are affecting our coast.”

    From the report: