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The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: Remembering John A. Knauss

The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: Remembering John A. Knauss

The late John A. Knauss leaves a long legacy of service to the nation and its oceans

By Meredith Haas, Rhode Island Sea Grant

The National Sea Grant College Program was founded in an era when widespread interest in the oceans was just beginning to emerge. In the wake of Word War II, the importance of understanding the oceans was apparent to the U.S. Navy, and the sea was becoming recognized as an important natural environment as well as a source of natural resources that could be extracted or developed for public benefit.

Dr. John A. Knauss, founding Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) at the University of Rhode Island, was instrumental in the development of the National Sea Grant College Program. He passed away in late 2015, but his legacy in Sea Grant lives on, not only in the growth of the program from the initial four state programs to today’s 33, but also in the prestigious national fellowship that bears his name, and brings graduate students from across the country to Washington, D.C., to learn about and participate in the decision making and implementation of policies that affect the United States’ oceans and coastal resources.

“Rhode Island is fortunate to have been home to one of the great visionaries of oceanography, Dr. John Knauss,” said Dennis Nixon, director of Rhode Island Sea Grant. “His leadership was instrumental in the formative stages of both the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and the National Sea Grant College program.” 

Dr. John A. Knauss, one of the founders of Sea Grant. Image: University of Rhode Island.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1925, Knauss was also Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere in the Department of Commerce, and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 1989 to 1993. Through his extensive career in oceanography and marine policy, one of his notable achievements, in collaboration with Senator Claiborne Pell and Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus from Minnesota University, was the development of the Sea Grant program:  “The Sea Grant idea was first proposed by Athelstan Spilhaus at a 1963 fisheries conference. It found fertile soil in Rhode Island where we believed we were already doing much of what Spilhaus was proposing,” said Knauss in a 2000 issue of Maritimes. “The Sea Grant Act was passed in 1966. URI received one of the first grants in 1968 and became one of the first four Sea Grant Colleges in 1972.”

And thus was established an academic/industry/government partnership in recognition that marine resources were an untapped asset for energy, development, and food resources. The idea of creating Sea Grant colleges was modeled after the Land Grant college program, which set the standard for utilizing the resources of the nation’s universities to address the needs of citizens regarding aspects of land use and agriculture, but with a focus on marine and coastal resources. At a time when America was excited about science, in general, especially the possibility of reaping sustained economic benefits from the vast resources of the seas, national enthusiasm for the Sea Grant College concept grew.

“I believe the oceans and the 70 percent of the earth that is underwater will play an increasingly important role in providing a variety of resources, including energy and fresh water, to an increasing population. Perhaps even more important is that environmental stresses will also grow in next century,” said Knauss, presciently, in Maritimes. “Many of these issues concern the ocean and our need to better understand its role: changing sea-level, coastal pollution, modifying the earth’s climate, maintaining the current atmospheric chemical balance, and much more.”

“He was a remarkable man who has done a lot for Rhode Island and our oceans industry,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), reflecting on Knauss’s professional achievements. “Sea Grant … owes an enormous amount to [former] Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell and [former] Graduate School of Oceanography head and [NOAA] administrator, John Knauss.”

“We are saddened by this loss for the entire ocean community who has been so greatly influenced and supported by Dr. Knauss. We will celebrate his life and continue his legacy here at Sea Grant by continuing research, outreach, and education efforts that will continue to preserve coastal and ocean resources for generations to come,” said Nixon.

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