Ohio Sea Grant at 40

Ohio Sea Grant at 40
Four Decades of Education, Research and Service on Lake Erie, Ohio's Greatest Natural Resource

By Christina Dierkes, Ohio Sea Grant  | Photos by Sherrie Whaley, NOAA

It’s been 40 years since The Ohio State University’s Center for Lake Erie Area Research (CLEAR) was first recognized as Ohio’s home for the National Sea Grant College Program. The national program, which started in 1968, has helped coastal and Great Lakes communities by supporting the practical use and conservation of coastal, marine and Great Lakes resources.

The Ohio Sea Grant College Program was established in 1978, with $128,000 worth of funding that had to cover all aspects of what a Sea Grant Program was supposed to do. The program is in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. 

The Ohio Sea Grant program and Stone Lab partners with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to run the Aquatic Visitors Center in the historic fish hatchery building.

“The National Sea Grant College Program, when they funded us, called us a coherent program because we had everything that a Sea Grant Program was supposed to have: the three pieces of research, education and outreach, as well as an overall communications component,” remembered Jeff Reutter, former director of Ohio Sea Grant who was with the program from its beginning until his retirement in 2017.

That initial funding covered the establishment of a Marine Advisory Service (today’s OSU Extension program), as well as a research project on creating a market for freshwater drum fish to help commercial fishermen and an education effort that would lead to the development of Great Lakes curriculum lessons that are still inspiring educators today.

As Ohio State’s island campus on Lake Erie, Stone Laboratory offers a powerful combination of science education and research.

Today, Ohio Sea Grant manages a multi-million-dollar research program, with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the State of Ohio, The Ohio State University and others ranging from private foundations to the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

The team oversees operations and education opportunities at Stone Lab, the program’s research, education and outreach facility on Gibraltar Island, just off Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island. Five Extension educators also bring Lake Erie knowledge directly to the communities most affected by it.

Over the past 40 years, Ohio Sea Grant has accomplished a number of milestones, all of them important to making Ohio a thriving place to call home.

A River Burns in Cleveland

It’s a story everyone who spends time in Cleveland hears eventually: in 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. It wasn’t the first time the extremely polluted river had burned, but increased media attention and a shift in public sentiment towards environmental protection meant it was the last.

The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burst into flames in 1969 due to sewage and industrial waste, but it wasn't the first time the polluted river caught fire. (Photo: NOAA)

The Cuyahoga River fire inspired legislation like the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and raised awareness about the health of Lake Erie and its tributaries to the point where establishing Ohio’s Sea Grant program became a no-brainer.

Over the next 16 years, newly created national, state and local efforts to clean up the lake went so well that Lake Erie’s reputation quickly changed from North America’s Dead Sea to the Walleye Capital of the World. By 1985, the lake had recovered so much that two graduate students who were studying under Ohio Sea Grant’s education coordinator Rosanne Fortner wrote to Dr. Seuss to ask him to update his book, The Lorax. The line they objected to read: “They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary / In search of some water that isn’t so smeary. / I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”

“I should no longer be saying bad things about a body of water that is now, due to great civic and scientific effort, the happy home of smiling fish.”Dr. Suess

Seuss sent an apology to the students, and promised to update the line in future editions of the book. “I should no longer be saying bad things about a body of water that is now, due to great civic and scientific effort, the happy home of smiling fish,” Seuss wrote in his response. “Unfortunately, the purification of texts, like that of lakes, cannot be accomplished overnight. The objectionable line will be removed from future editions.”

Today, work to restore the Cuyahoga River continues under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the U.S. Clean Water Act. The agreement declared the 43 dirtiest rivers and harbors in the Great Lakes watershed as Areas of Concern (AOCs) and put processes in place to address the specific issues affecting each river. Ohio Sea Grant Extension agent Scott Hardy chairs the public outreach subcommittee of the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern Advisory Committee, which recently had cause to celebrate.

“There were 10 total beneficial use impairments (BUIs) when the river was first designated as an AOC, and of those 10, we’ve just had two delisted,” Hardy said. “Those two are degradation of aesthetics and restrictions on recreation and public access, and they were officially removed from the list in late 2017. We’re also hoping to get restrictions on fish consumption removed in the next few months.”

Hardy continues to work with the Cuyahoga River AOC Advisory Committee, a collaboration with a number of other local and regional agencies and non-profit organizations, on removal of the remaining eight BUIs. Their goal is to have the river completely delisted as an Area of Concern by the end of 2025.

Keeping Ohio Waters Healthy

The Ohio Clean Marinas Program is a proactive partnership among Ohio Sea Grant, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association (LEMTA) designed to encourage marinas and boaters to use simple solutions to keep Ohio’s waterways clean. The program, along with a companion Clean Boater program, promotes environmental stewardship and assists in protecting clean water and fresh air for future boaters.

The Ohio Clean Marinas Program encourages marinas and boaters to use simple solutions to keep Ohio’s waterways clean.

Started in 2003, the program focuses on actions marinas and boaters can take to protect the waterways they use. While the original program only covered the Lake Erie watershed, an expansion in 2015 brought it to the whole state.

Partners were essential to the Clean Marinas Program from the very beginning, starting with a meeting between Ohio Sea Grant, ODNR and LEMTA at the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Cleveland in late 2002.

“We were very pleased to be asked to lead the program, but it was really a partnership between ODNR, LEMTA and us, and that partnership continues to this day,” Reutter said. Much of the initial program funding came from ODNR, NOAA and LEMTA, with matching support from The Ohio State University and Ohio Sea Grant.

To continue recruiting marinas to the program – and to keep things interesting for the marinas that have been around for a while – the Clean Marinas team is developing a new tiered certification system that will recognize marinas going above and beyond the baseline requirements and giving currently certified marinas new goals to work towards.

The Clean Boater Program pledge focuses on small actions boaters can take to keep Lake Erie and other waterways clean.

The Clean Boater Program works with boaters who may not dock at marinas, or who may simply want to do their part to keep their recreation environment clean for their kids. Their pledge focuses on small actions they can take, such as not littering, keeping fuel from polluting water at fueling stations, and preventing invasive species from hitching a ride by cleaning, draining and drying their boats before moving from one body of water to another.

Stone Lab Educational Offerings Benefit Students and Educators Alike

Stone Lab’s summer college courses continue the tradition of hands-on education by immersing students in Lake Erie science, often quite literally. All classes include at least some field trips, where students go out in the field to collect samples and experience the ecosystems they’re studying first-hand.

Teacher courses and workshops during the summer offer professional development hours or graduate course credit. Educators learn about Lake Erie science and how they can bring that knowledge back to their classroom in engaging and creative ways.

Educators learn about Lake Erie science and take that knowledge back to their classroom.

Education has been at the heart of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab since the beginning. Remember that initial research funding? It went to Vic Mayer in Ohio State’s College of Education, and brought on Rosanne Fortner as a post-doctoral researcher, kicking off a decades-long career that established Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab as a leader in Great Lakes education.

“In terms of Great Lakes education, she’s definitely known as the Queen of the Great Lakes,” said Lyndsey Manzo, Ohio Sea Grant’s education specialist, who completed her master’s program under Fortner and now teaches educator courses at Stone Lab herself. “Rosanne is always on the cutting edge of what’s coming in education, and always was.”

Fortner, now retired, developed Ohio Sea Grant’s first climate change curriculum in the late 1990s, before climate change even became a concern for educators. That climate change curriculum was updated in 2013 with new data, updated science education standards and a new look, and is still available for teachers to use. Ohio Sea Grant’s Global Change, Local Impact webinar series on the effects of climate change in the Great Lakes, and an associated iTunes U learning program that reached more than 70,000 people, also brought those lessons to an international audience.

Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab have been a pillar of Lake Erie science, education and outreach for a long time, but the program has no plans to slow down anytime soon. With problems like harmful algal blooms and climate change impacts on the region an ongoing concern, and potential issues like plastics and pharmaceuticals pollution and new invasive species always on the horizon, staff will continue to work hard to make sure Lake Erie, its inhabitants and the surrounding communities are healthy and thriving for decades to come.

Zebra mussels are an invasive species that can hitch a ride from one body of water to another.

Thirty years ago, the threat posed by zebra mussels showed that innovative, collaborative approaches are needed to help solve the critical issues Lake Erie faces, said Christopher Winslow, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab.

“Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab were able to lead the charge then, and continued to do so whenever new problems emerged,” Winslow said.

“Today, we’re addressing the problem of harmful algal blooms through partnered funding efforts like the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, funded through the Ohio Department of Higher Education, that continues our tradition of bringing together scientists and agencies throughout Ohio to help solve an issue. That’s what Ohio Sea Grant has always been about.”