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The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: 40 Years of Progress in the Urban Ocean

The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: 40 Years of Progress in the Urban Ocean

With more than 10 million people living by the sea, how do we balance ecological preservation with intensive human uses of a public resource?

Laura Wilson

By Charlotte Stevenson and Holly Rindge, University of Southern California Sea Grant

A journey down the Southern California coastline reveals rocky seashores, sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs that are home to diverse plants, seabirds and a wide variety of marine life. Also visible are super highways, power plants, concrete river channels, trash, poor water quality, invasive species, and the busiest ports in the United States. It is no wonder the region became the ideal laboratory to study the effects of urbanization on our coastlines, and why, in 1972, the seventh Sea Grant Program in the country was established at the University of Southern California. It was of great necessity to manage aquatic natural resources in one of the most intensely populated and developed coastlines in the country.  Soon thereafter, USC Sea Grant coined the term “Urban Ocean,” a theme that has characterized our program’s focus ever since. 

Researchers capture leopard sharks to study at Catalina Island. Image: Phyllis Grifman, USC Sea Grant.

In a recent 40-year retrospective of USC Sea Grant, we tell a few stories to show how our long- term work supports achievements in several key areas of importance to Southern California’s Urban Ocean. It is extremely rewarding to be able to say that some things are better than they were 20 or 40 years ago. It is not possible to say that about everything, but we can see improvements here along our coastline, such as reductions in aquatic heavy metals, improved port air quality, LID ordinances to reduce stormwater run-off, a network of science-based and stakeholder-designed marine protected areas, invasive species bans, and great increases in environmental education opportunities and ocean literacy. We are proud to have been part of the collaborations of research scientists, educators, government leaders, community stakeholders, and other Sea Grant program partners that worked on these and many other issues. 

Teachers engage in ocean science onboard a local Tall Ship. Image: Gwen Noda.

As always, the work is not done, and the stories told in the retrospective are not finished. As the realities of climate change become more challenging, we must view all of our work through a new lens. Climate change will continue to affect everything from the thickness of mussel shells, to the distribution and abundance of marine populations, to the management of critical municipal resources like water, beaches, ports, and other coastline infrastructure. It is our hope that these stories of success in the Southern California urban ocean laboratory can help facilitate the protection and sustainable management of coastal and marine resources in other urban ocean settings. We have a saying at USC Sea Grant: if it can be done in LA, then it can be done anywhere.

We invite you to read more about our success stories in water quality, harmful algal blooms, toxicology, aquatic invasive species, education, climate change, marine wildlife and conservation, and ports, marine transportation and coastal management.

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