Always look for balanced, evidence-based information when tackling an issue that’s important to you, new Extension educator Elliot Nelson advises.

Elliot Nelson joined Michigan Sea Grant in May 2016 and is seen here officially opening his office in Sault Ste. Marie. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

In 2016, the National Sea Grant College Program celebrates 50 years of putting science to work for America’s coastal communities.

Sea Grant is a federal-state partnership that turns research into action by supporting science-based, environmentally sustainable practices that ensure coastal communities remain engines of economic growth in a rapidly changing world. There are 33 programs across the country working to help build and grow innovative businesses along America’s oceans and Great Lakes, protect against environmental destruction and natural disasters, and train the next generation of leaders.

Established in 1969, Michigan Sea Grant, is a collaboration between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. We offer research, education and community outreach on topics such as aquatic invasive species, coastal development, commercial and sports fishing, and environmental stewardship for youth.

Our Michigan State University Extension educators live and work in coastal communities around Michigan. We celebrate their hard work and take this opportunity to introduce each of them during this anniversary year.

Elliot Nelson is located in Sault Saint Marie and serves six counties in the Eastern Upper Peninsula. He joined the Michigan Sea Grant Extension team as an educator in May 2016.

hessel_072916_0248Elliot grew up in the Upper Peninsula, but spent the last 11 years in southern Michigan before returning to the UP as an Extension educator. He received his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University in biology and worked as a high school science teacher in Grand Rapids for a number of years. More recently Elliot worked as an environmental educator, watershed manager and promoter of Michigan’s birding trails. He recently received his master’s degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment in Conservation Ecology and Communications.

In his free time Elliot is a bit obsessed with bird watching and frequently travels around the state to view rare birds. He also loves kayaking, gardening and basically any activity that’s an excuse to get outside.

What made you decide to be an Extension educator?

Starting back in undergrad, I noticed that there often was a disconnect between academic research and application of research in the real world. When I recently returned to school to obtain a master’s degree I made it a point to seek out opportunities to participate in that space between research and application. When I learned that Sea Grant had an opening, and what Sea Grant is all about, I began to become very excited. Here is an organization that is really making a positive impact on coastal communities and ecosystems around the state, and they’re doing it by applying high quality data and research. I decided this is really where I want to work.

How has Michigan Sea Grant made a difference in the aquaculture industry?

Aquaculture, or the breeding, rearing and harvesting of aquatic animals or plants, is the fastest growing sector of the seafood industry. While the private industry in Michigan is relatively small, there is huge potential for growth. In addition, there are large numbers of publicly owned hatcheries that practice aquaculture to raise fish for release into the wild to support Michigan’s recreational fishery. Michigan Sea Grant has supported aquaculture in the past through Extension educator Ron Kinnunen’s work and the Seafood HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) training courses he teaches. These courses assist seafood processors with practicing safe handling to prevent disease transmission. In addition, another HACCP course helps aquaculture facilities create a plan to prevent the spread of invasive species. Currently Michigan Sea Grant is working to create an Aquaculture Technician Certification program in collaboration with a number of community colleges and four-year institutions. Helping train a knowledgeable workforce is one of the keys to growing a sustainable and low impact industry within the state.

What challenges does your area of the state face as you look to the future?

The Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a beautiful location with a vibrant natural and cultural history. However, during the recession of the 2000s, the area saw a noted loss in jobs and a decline in population. In particular demographics shifted as young people left the area and the remaining individuals aged. One of the greatest challenges in this region of the state will be developing economic opportunities and diversifying local economies to adapt to a changing world. In the same vein, retaining and attracting a younger population and entrepreneurs of all ages will be critical to promoting a diversified and vibrant economy in the area.

How will you and Michigan Sea Grant help?

Michigan Sea Grant works in a variety of areas that can help both develop a sense of place and promote diverse economies. My work in particular with the aquaculture industry could help bring sustainable jobs to the area. I am also working with birding trails in the area to help grow a more diverse ecotourism industry. The natural features in this region are mostly pristine and unparalleled in their beauty. By protecting these resources, we can retain their aesthetic value and benefit from a robust tourist economy. In addition, I am working with a variety of local partners from Lake Superior State University to the Soo Watershed Partnership on helping make EUP waterfront towns desirable places to live. Improving watershed quality and promoting access to waterfronts can help improve a sense of place and desirability of an area and help attract a vibrant workforce while at the same time improving quality of life.

Do you have any advice for students who might want to pursue a career with an environmental focus?

Get out there and start doing things! The best way to discover if an environmentally focused career is good for you is by volunteering and/or working for groups that are working in the areas you are interested in. Try working with a variety of different types of employers such as nonprofits, state or federal governments, or private companies to get a sense of which working environment is best for you.

If you could get people to follow just one piece of conservation advice what would it be?

Always look for balanced, evidence-based information when tackling an issue that’s important to you. Do the research to know exactly what the issue is and how you can best solve it, then get to work!