The Ohio Sea Grant Extension program connects the needs and concerns of Lake Erie communities with the people who can help address those needs, bringing new knowledge to their stakeholders through education and outreach programming and finding new ways to address problems through research and publications.
The team of five Extension agents covers a lot of ground, and each agent brings a different set of background experience and expertise to the table, but all of them work together under an umbrella of providing needed, science-based information to the communities they serve.
“We’re a trusted resource that’s really non-biased,” explained Tory Gabriel, Ohio Sea Grant’s Extension program leader and fisheries specialist. “We can find the data to inform decisionmaking and present that data in a way that our clientele can understand and use.”
For Gabriel, it’s all about finding ways to make people care about Lake Erie, because when people care about something, they’re more likely to protect it. In his case, he develops that connection through fishing.
“It connects you to the outdoors, and it’s a really easy and cheap way to hook people,” he said. “Caring about the lake makes people want to be more informed, and that obviously makes them better able to make decisions that would impact Lake Erie.”
“Caring about the lake makes people want to be more informed, and that obviously makes them better able to make decisions that would impact Lake Erie.”
With programs in youth fishing education, college courses and business development conferences for charter boat captains, Gabriel tackles Lake Erie issues for all ages, from the hundreds of elementary school kids who might catch their first fish at one of his programs to the 700 captains that run fishing businesses on Lake Erie. And most of his clients not only report learning something new at these events, but also that they plan to continue to adjust their behavior according to what they learned.
Ohio Clean Marinas Program Manager Sarah Orlando agrees that meeting people where they are is an essential part of Extension work. The Ohio Clean Boater Program, an offshoot of the Clean Marinas program that engages boaters who may not dock at a Clean Marina, takes advantage of boaters’ love and appreciation for clean water to educate them about ways to keep it clean on a daily basis.
“We’re able to capture that passion for clean waterways to get boaters involved in the program, and we now have regular ways to educate them on best practices,” Orlando said. “A lot of those practices are written for a boating setting, but the reality is that many of those practices can be applied at home, at work and in their community.”
A Clean Lake, Now and in the Future
Lake Erie faces a number of challenges when it comes to its health, and one place where those challenges can be particularly prominent is at marinas. The Ohio Clean Marinas Program, a partnership with OSU Extension and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Office of Coastal Management, Division of Parks & Watercraft and the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, helps both coastal and inland marinas prevent pollution and act as good stewards of the waterways on which their businesses rely.
“In many ways, industrial marinas are like autobody shops on the water,” explained Orlando. “They’re doing engine maintenance, oil changes, fueling, sanding and painting, all in an area that’s very close to either Lake Erie or to an inland waterbody. So what we do through our program is make sure marinas are at the very least compliant with environmental regulations, and we also provide extensive technical education and assistance on best management practices that go above and beyond those regulations to help marinas do a top notch job of minimizing pollution into our waterways.”
That education and assistance doesn’t just come over the phone or via email either, although those are some of the ways in which marina owners can ask for help with environmental concerns. Clean Marinas staff spend a lot of time at marinas, conducting site visits, talking owners through potential ways to keep waterways clean, and just generally making sure they’ve built relationships and can be trusted sources of information for this Ohio industry.
“It’s a big part of what we do, being out there and available for the marinas and helping them out,” said Orlando.
But marinas aren’t the only places where education on preventing pollution can have a big impact. Extension specialist Jill Bartolotta focuses much of her work on marine debris, which in the Great Lakes consists mostly of cigarette butts, pieces of plastic or foam, and bottle caps.
“What we’re really trying to focus on is ‘what do you do in your everyday life that involves plastic or improper disposal of these items, and what can you do to change your behavior so that less of these plastics are used or end up in the natural environment’,” said Bartolotta.
With few other programs doing this kind of work, the articles she has published with fellow Extension specialist Dr. Scott Hardy have garnered them attention from other states and even a few international researchers. Their research was supported by the City of Cleveland, which is now using the information to develop a plastics pollution prevention campaign.
Between curriculum development, outreach activities like festivals and classroom visits, and beach clean-ups, Bartolotta’s efforts have reached almost 24,000 people through more than 200 events. She also helped create marine debris educational displays for a number of partners that have been seen by 266,600 visitors at outreach centers like the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Cleveland.
A new project will now extend that reach by getting local businesses involved: Bartolotta and Stone Lab education specialist Sue Bixler are collaborating with restaurants and other Put-in-Bay businesses to reduce plastics consumption and reach customers with messages about reducing plastics pollution. “Businesses are seeing that it’s in their best interest to be more environmentally friendly, so we’ve had great buy-in from those partners,” said Bartolotta.
Building Healthy Lake Erie Communities
Because of Lake Erie’s industrial past – and present – a number of rivers along the coastline were declared Areas of Concern (AOCs) under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the U.S. Clean Water Act. Ohio Sea Grant staff are involved with restoration committees on three of the major Ohio AOCs, providing science-based information to the groups carrying out projects to remove pollution and help the rivers thrive again.
Dr. Scott Hardy is particularly involved with the Cuyahoga River AOC Advisory Committee, and chairs the public outreach subcommittee. They recently were able to remove a third beneficial use impairment related to fish consumption and aim to have the river completely delisted as an Area of Concern by the end of 2025.
Hardy attributes some of the success of his involvement to living in Cleveland as part of the affected communities. “The watershed and AOC work is a really huge part of my background going back almost 15 years,” Hardy said. “It’s all about networking and partnerships, right? I absolutely could not do what I’m doing now if I was based anywhere else.”
Helping coastal communities thrive is also the goal of economic development and leadership specialist Joe Lucente. He runs business retention and expansion (BR&E) programs for local governments and business communities that want to ensure they’re doing what they can to help grow their local economy and provide employment opportunities for their residents.
“It’s the small to medium-sized companies in all the communities that we work in that create up to 80 percent of most jobs in that community. That’s why it’s so important to have this process, to let businesses know that they can turn to their local government to help with their needs.”
“This whole thing is about building relationships between government and the business community,” Lucente said. “It’s the small to medium-sized companies in all the communities that we work in that create up to 80 percent of most jobs in that community. That’s why it’s so important to have this process, to let businesses know that they can turn to their local government to help with their needs.”
A 2017 BR&E survey in Perrysburg, a city of 21,500 people just south of Toledo, offers a good example of how impactful the business community can be when it has the resources and guidance it needs. Firms were planning to add between 58 and 177 new full-time equivalent jobs, and based on income tax rates and pay scales, those jobs would translate to an additional $33,000 to $100,000 in income tax revenue for the city and add $2.2 to $6.7 million in personal income for the local economy.
Lucente also runs the Local Government Leadership Academy in Toledo, which has taught nearly 400 graduates since 2002 how to become better elected and appointed officials, industry leaders working with local governments, and citizen volunteers. The 10-week course teaches everything from how to conduct an effective public meeting to government finance and media relations, and curriculum is adjusted every year based on feedback and organizer requests.
The push to start the academy came from a phone call Lucente received from the Toledo Chamber of Commerce, asking whether Extension had resources available to help public officials expand their decision-making capacity.
“And it was that simple,” Lucente remembered. “We were able to take what OSU Extension was just starting to work on at the state level and adapt it to the local level. And that’s what we’ve done, and it’s been a big success ever since.”
Safe Recreation, Safe Living
Listening to community needs is essential to all Extension work, and it’s especially important when it comes to the safety of coastal residents. Those concerns can range from personal actions and behavior changes to community- or statewide projects that address larger concerns.
Bartolotta works with other professionals in the Great Lakes region on paddling safety, including kayaking and paddleboarding. Through events like the Spirit of America program, which teaches boating and water safety to middle schoolers, she’s able to educate the next generation of Lake Erie residents about enjoying the lake safely as well as environmental education like not littering and carrying reusable water bottles.
She’s also part of regional task forces both in Ohio and in the larger Great Lakes region that educate paddlers about safety issues from dangerous currents to sharing a river with freighters, as well as train local lifeguards and kayak rental businesses to ensure that people on the beach are prepared to deal with all kinds of emergencies.
But safety isn’t just about reacting to a problem. Sometimes, it’s about planning for future concerns.
Hardy works with the Cleveland Climate Action Advisory Committee and other organizations to prepare local communities for the impacts of a changing climate, which includes more frequent storms and more rainfall with those storms. He recently used data from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to pinpoint communities that could benefit most from education about these hazards to reduce flooding and other impacts of heavy precipitation.
“Climate resiliency and understanding how climate change is impacting our coastal waters is a foundational piece of knowledge that helps me better operate in all these other spaces,” Hardy said. That also includes marine debris work with Bartolotta, where an understanding of where runoff is most likely to pick up plastic debris and wash it into the lake can really help connect the dots on how to best prevent that from happening.
It’s All About Shared Experience
A major factor in the success of the Extension program is the fact that agents are embedded in their community – they could run into clients at their offices, but also at the grocery store or the local diner.
“You really have to be in that community to be able to serve it the way we like to do, but also to really understand the community you’re serving,” Gabriel said.
Bartolotta agrees: “I’m able to hear the needs of the community, or I experience them myself, so that’s information that I can share with the people who can do research or make a difference about it, because I’m actually living it.”
In the end, it’s all about taking care of a shared resource that can have major impacts on people’s lives, health and happiness. That’s the goal for all of Ohio Sea Grant’s outreach and education activities, and Extension is an essential part of it.