A draft of the federal budget has called for eliminating the National Sea Grant College Program, raising alarm among aquaculturists, town officials and others who have benefited from its scientific research funding and free technical assistance for coastal communities.

The leaked memo from the federal Office of Management and Budget, first reported by the Washington Post, aims to slash funding for a number of federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The memo reportedly cites the Trump administration’s goal of rebuilding the military.

NOAA would face the steepest cuts, including $513 million from its Satellite and Information Service, and $126 million from its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. The $73 million Sea Grant Program, which is also part of NOAA, would be eliminated entirely.

Robert Rheault, director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, traveled to Washington D.C. last week to meet with federal officials and advocate for the program, which he saw as an engine for job growth. He highlighted the importance of the various Sea Grant extension programs, which provide free technical advice on a wide range of coastal issues, and give a leg up to shellfish farmers.

“It’s widely recognized that it’s a great bang for the buck,” he said of the program. “We really count on Sea Grant extension agents to help us navigate the challenging permit maze that is involved in helping us get a shellfish farm started.”

A Sea Grant brochure from January estimates a $575 million economic impact from the program in 2015 — an 850 per cent return on the government’s investment of about $67 million that year. The brochure also credits the program with creating or sustaining 20,770 jobs and 2,903 businesses nationwide each year.

Each coastal state has its own Sea Grant program, based at a college or institution, which administers funds for research projects and provids extension services such as training and consultation for local communities. The Massachusetts program, based at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Instituttion, has two extension agents.

Current research projects that involve the Vineyard include the modeling of shoreline evolution on Chappaquiddick, the integration of mussel and kelp aquaculture in the waters off Chilmark, and new methods of marine aquaculture siting and permitting.

Woods Hole Sea Grant director Judith McDowell, who also traveled to Washington last week, said in an email that the proposed budget cuts have raised concern, but that until an official proposal is released it would be premature to comment. But she said without federal funding, it would be difficult to maintain all the programs already budgeted in the two-year funding cycle ending in 2020. The program had anticipated about $500,000 per year for that period.

Perhaps of most concern to Island towns is the potential loss of the program’s two extension agents, Gregory Berman and Diane Murphy, who have worked with boards, regulatory staff and others on issues related to fisheries, aquaculture, coastal processes and coastal hazards.

In recent years, Mr Berman has worked with the town of Chilmark on a plan to restore Squibnocket Beach, and with West Tisbury on its efforts to reestablish a herring run at James Pond. He also helps organize the occasional Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Conference, and provides assistance to the Dukes County barrier beach task force. In 2013, he assisted with efforts to relocate the 8,300-square-foot Schifter house on Chappaquiddick, which was threatened by coastal erosion.

“It’s kind of like ‘ask a geologist,’” Mr. Berman said of his work, which is funded jointly by Woods Hole Sea Grant and the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, the education department of Barnstable County. Each group covers half the funding, with the Sea Grant portion requiring a 50 per cent match. Most of the money goes into research, Mr. Berman said, with the rest supporting the extension services.

“Barnstable County likes being a good neighbor,” he said. “But really it’s the Sea Grant funding that allows us to go over to the Island to help with the technical assistance and that sort of thing.”

Ms. Murphy specializes in fisheries and aquaculture, among other things working with the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group and helping to run an aquaculture training program. She is also part of a team conducting research to help oyster growers better understand diseases such as Dermo and MXS, which can ruin their crops, and is working on a project to monitor Vibrio bacteria in the region.

Mr. Berman said the extension program is somewhat unique in its close collaboration with communities along the coast. “It’s meant to be services provided at the town level, versus some of the other programs that are really up in the sky, or provided at a level where folks don’t really see it as clearly,” he said.

The Sea Grant extension may be especially vital in small coastal communities, where high-profile projects can stir fierce debate

Mr. Rheault, whose home state of Rhode Island had one of the first Sea Grant programs in the 1960s, said the program as a whole has benefitted coastal planning. “Sea Grant comes to the table without an agenda, to provide solid scientific information to help us navigate these challenging issues,” he said.

He said many of the officials he met with in Washington shared an appreciation for the program, given its track record of boosting local economies and creating jobs. He noted that previous efforts over the last 20 years to gut the program have failed, and that a $2 million cut proposed by congress a few years ago was restored after he and others lobbied the senate.

The recent draft proposal, also known as a passback or a president’s ask, is just one stage in the federal budgeting process, which may take between six and nine months to resolve. Following his visit to the Capitol, Mr. Rheault said he had reason to believe the Sea Grant funding could still be restored in the final budget.

“Many offices were quite clear that, at least for the last decade, the president’s ask is little more than an advisory opinion,” he said. “The appropriators on both sides of the hill were very clear that they write the budget, they hold the purse strings.”

Mr. Berman said that since Woods Hole Sea Grant receives funding from NOAA, his options for lobbying on behalf of the program were limited under the law. “Our hands are tied,” he said. “But typically our stakeholders tend to be appreciative of what we do and go out and let people know about that.” But as with Ms. McDowell, he was reluctant to take a position before a public draft is issued.

“We try to hold off until there actually is a budget,” he said.