It was 86 degrees in Baton Rouge on July 1, 1968 -- cooler than usual. The median monthly income of a family in the United States as $719. A woman's haircut cost $2.15. Gasoline averaged 34 cents per gallon. And with initial funding of $198,000 from the federal government, Louisiana Sea Grant was born.
Two years earlier, Congress founded the National Sea Grant College Program which created a university-based system dedicated to the responsible development of the nation’s coastal and marine resources through research, education and extension. Officials at Louisiana State University recognized this unique opportunity and pursued establishing a state program under that federal umbrella.
“I was asked if I would like to come back to LSU and help set the thing up,” said Jack Van Lopik in a 2006 interview. “So, I came back from Texas Instruments … on a two-year leave of absence just to get the program started.” Van Lopik, who earned his doctorate from LSU in 1955, ended up serving as Louisiana Sea Grant’s executive director for 37 years – 1968 to 2005. He passed away in 2015.
One of the first hurdles in launching Louisiana Sea Grant was money. State programs had to match federal funds with in-kind services or cash. “We did a lot of talking with legislators. This was done not only by myself, but by people like the chancellor and (other) people that were involved at LSU at the time,” said Van Lopik.
But even with support from LSU administration and state and federal funding, there was no guarantee university researchers would buy into the Sea Grant concept. It’s multidisciplinary, applied-research approach was not the norm.
“Sea Grant was across all different kinds of disciplines … not only from the science and engineering part of the university, but also from the law center and sociology and economics … trying an interdisciplinary approach to (solve) a lot of the problems in the coastal zone,” said Van Lopik. “Sea Grant was trying to get involvement of not just people in the academic community, but to get people from academia tied into real world problems.”
As a new faculty member at LSU in 1984, Chuck Wilson recognized Louisiana Sea Grant’s importance to his research, and he received his first grant from the program the following year to study the reproductive biology of red drum. Twenty years later Wilson took the helm as Sea Grant’s second executive director – serving in that capacity for eight years, through 2012.
“That first year as Sea Grant director posed a number of challenges,” Wilson said. “It was 2005, and communities and businesses along the coast were devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At that moment, the program took on more of a response and recovery role than it had ever had in the past. When hurricanes Gustav and Ike came along – as well as the 2010 oil spill – we were in a much stronger position to help coastal communities affected by those disasters.”
Robert Twilley became Louisiana Sea Grant’s third executive director in the summer of 2012. As a young researcher, he also benefitted from Louisiana Sea Grant funding, initially in 1987.
“Louisiana’s coastal communities are experiencing accelerated environmental changes driven by the highest rates of coastal land loss and relative sea level rise, more than any other coastal region in the United States. In response, Sea Grant is creating more focus on strategic adaptations for communities and industry. An innovative research approach that is integrative across the sciences, just as described by our first director, Jack Van Lopik, is necessary to address our coastal issues. And we must continue to improve our ability to communicate that knowledge with strong engagement and outreach efforts,” said Twilley.
“For a program celebrating a half-century of service, Louisiana Sea Grant continues to innovate and be a leader in bridging our state’s academic expertise with the needs of those who manage, conserve, enjoy and make their living on the coast. Louisiana Sea Grant has demonstrated that it is prepared to help coastal communities meet immediate and future challenges,” Twilley said.
Roy Kron is the director of Communications and Outreach, Louisiana Sea Grant College Program.
Jack Van Lopik 1968-2005
Chuck Wilson 2005-2012
Robert Twilley 2012-present