Sea Grant, a major source of funding for Chesapeake Bay researchers, is struggling for survival as Congress seeks to balance the budget and reprioritize the nation's research agenda.

A bill that would authorize Sea Grant's existence for three more years is in trouble, and the program has been targeted for elimination by taxpayers groups - one of which labeled the 29-year-old program as "pork for porpoises" in a letter to members of Congress.

"There is sort of a general notion out there these days that if there is a federal grant, it is somehow unseemly," said Lee Stevens, Executive Director of the Sea Grant Association. "I think the opposition is from people who just want to eliminate federal spending wherever they can find it without regard to the benefits a program provides."

Sea Grant was created in 1966 to improve the conservation, management and utilization of coastal resources. It was patterned after the Land Grant College Program, which was created in 1862 to bolster the nation's agriculture industry. Like land grant colleges, Sea Grant funds research; supplies information for resource management decisions; conducts education and outreach programs; and operates an extension service - modeled after the Cooperative Extension Service - designed to transfer scientific knowledge to resource-based businesses.

Sea Grant was originally formed as part of the National Science Foundation but became part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when that agency was created in 1970. Nationwide, its budget in recent years has ranged between $40 million and $50 million.

The 29 Sea Grant programs nationwide are either operated out of individual universities - as with the University of Maryland - or, as in Virginia, by a consortium of institutions. The Virginia consortium includes the University of Virginia, The College of William and Mary, Old Dominion University and Virginia Tech. Through state programs, Sea Grant funds projects at more than 300 institutions nationwide.

The bill to authorize the continued operation of Sea Grant faces both political and philosophical problems. As lawmakers look for cuts anywhere they can to balance the budget, a program that awards federal research grants to universities makes an attractive target. Others philosophically question the merits of a program that emphasizes research on local or regional issues and the application of science to commercial use.

"There have been, for many years, people out there who think it is not an important enough thing that the federal government ought to be spending money on it; that the private sector or the state ought to be paying for it if it gets funded," said an aide in the House Resources Committee, where the Sea Grant authorization sailed through earlier this spring. "Obviously, our committee does not believe that."

Indeed, Sea Grant continues to count many supporters in Congress, including Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Don Young, (R-AK), who recently sent a letter to members of Congress requesting that they support Sea Grant. In Southern California, he noted Sea Grant had saved roughly $1 billion in taxpayers' money by finding a cost-effective way for local governments to meet federal clean water requirements. He also lauded the program for creating economic opportunities for farmers and other small businesses though such projects as the creation of a striped-bass hybrid that can be farm-cultured.

Despite the support from Young's committee, the authorization was sent to the House Science Committee, which has pledged to cut spending for every agency under its jurisdiction in the coming year. (As the Bay Journal went to press, a subcommittee was preparing to recommend that Sea Grant be cut by 25 percent, and that deep cuts be made in research spending by NOAA and the EPA).

In the Science Committee, the kinds of efforts praised by Young are likely to raise questions because of a difference of philosophy about the government's role in science. Some in the Science Committee, one staffer noted, believe that government should primarily fund long-term noncommercial research, or "basic" science. While much of Sea Grant's research explores basic estuarine science, it also is heavily involved in applied research which is seen by some as critics as "corporate welfare" because it aids specific industries.

Other areas of Sea Grant that have been criticized include its educational component, about 10 percent of its total budget, which allows students to work with scientists on research issues. Also targeted is the roughly $500,000 a year that Sea Grant spends on fellowships for graduate students to work in federal agencies or congressional offices.

A staffer familiar with the Science Committee said that the Sea Grant authorization probably would not be reported out of that committee. Even if it were, this staffer said, it would not survive a vote on the House floor because it had been targeted for elimination by some taxpayers groups.

Citizens Against Government Waste, the group that called Sea Grant "pork for porpoises," said taxpayers would "applaud" the elimination of the program, calling it "little more than a pork barrel for a handful of members of Congress."

The group's sharply worded letter specifically complained about Sea Grant's fellowship program as being "unworthy of taxpayers' support," and its ongoing zebra mussel studies. Calling the Sea Grant reauthorization the "Zebra-Mussels Relief Bill," the group said research about the nonnative species which has been spreading across North America was not "significant to the national interest."

But supporters of Sea Grant say it has played a vital role in understanding and managing coastal resources, both in the Bay and around the nation. And if Sea Grant does not do it, they argue, the research will not get done. "How would the oyster industry around the Chesapeake Bay be expected to support a serious investigation into oyster disease?" asked Stevens.

In the Bay, Sea Grant helped fund the research in the 1980s that showed excess nitrogen was a major source of pollution to the Bay. Prior to that, nutrient control efforts focused mainly on phosphorus. Today, both nitrogen and phosphorus controls are seen as critical to cleaning up the Bay.

In addition to Sea Grant funds, other federal agencies, including NOAA and the EPA, use Sea Grant as a mechanism through which they fund some research. Without Sea Grant to "pass through" that money to researchers, those agencies would have to either develop their own distribution system or halt the grants.

Using NOAA pass-through money, for example, Sea Grant institutions in Maryland and Virginia conducted a five-year research program to better understand the causes and impacts of low levels of dissolved oxygen in the Bay. Low levels of dissolved oxygen, which stem from excess amounts of nutrients entering the Bay, are one of the main problems affecting habitats in the Bay.

Other research has examined the impacts of nutrients and toxics on organisms, understanding aquatic food webs, and the ecological roles of various fish and shellfish. Sea Grant's extension service has worked with seafood processors on such things as the development of pasteurization methods to extend the shelf life of crab meat, improving product safety and the development of techniques to reduce and reuse wastes from processing plants. It has also worked to develop and improve aquaculture techniques.

"There is nobody to pick up the slack if we go," said Chris D'Elia, director of the Maryland Sea Grant College Program. "I just don't know who is going to be interested in the coastal environment. I don't know who is going to do the fundamental research that is so desperately needed to make sound policy decisions."

Maryland and Virginia Sea Grant each get less than $1.5 million a year in federal money. In addition, every two federal dollars in Sea Grant must be matched with one state dollar. Though small, those grants account for a significant portion of research on the Bay.

Wayne Bell, of the University of Maryland's Center for Estuarine and Environmental Studies, estimated that 10 percent of the roughly $40 million in Bay-related research conducted by CEES during the past five years came from Sea Grant. Prior to that, Bell credited Sea Grant with funding research that helped CEES - now about 20 years old - establish its credibility.

Sea Grant and NOAA pass-through grants account for more than half the research taking place at the Benedict Estuarine Research Laboratory, a part of the non-profit Academy of Natural Sciences. It has used Sea Grant money in the past to examine such issues as the impact of nutrients and low levels of toxics on the food web in the Patuxent River.

The lab was recently awarded a six-year, $6 million grant from NOAA - to be administered through Sea Grant - to examine the cumulative effects of numerous environmental stresses, such as nutrients, toxics and low levels of dissolved oxygen, on ecological processes and the food chain.

"I think pretty much all those projects are difficult to fund elsewhere," said James Sanders, director of the Benedict lab. "EPA is interested in many of the same issues within the coastal zone, particularly coastal pollution issues, but its Office of Research and Development has very little undirected research money. Their money tends to go to issues like pollution abatement, where you've got a pollution problem and you try to rectify it, rather than trying to understand how the natural system operates and how we might be affecting that operation."

A review of Sea Grant completed last year by the independent National Research Council gave the program generally high marks, though it recommended improvements to its administrative procedures and the development of a strategic planning process to help guide budget priorities. The council said Sea Grant has never achieved its full potential because it lacked adequate funding.

Sea Grant funding has remained at about the same level since the early 1980s. But a House Resources Committee report noted that if inflation were taken into account, its funding would have to be doubled to restore it to the 1981 level in real terms.