50 Years of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab

At the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the collaboration between scientists, students and the public is the culmination of a lofty vision put in place 50 years ago.

Researchers with the Fisheries Ecology Lab tag a bull shark. Photo by David Hay Jones

When it comes to implanting an acoustic tracker into the abdomen of a live fish, there’s no substitute for practice. Step one: Run water over the gills to keep the fish alive. Step two: Make a small incision on the belly. Step three: Insert tiny, battery-operated tracker. Step four: Make a quick suture.

Released back into the water, that fish, thanks to its new accessory, can be tracked as it moves throughout the Bay and surrounding waterways. That’s because the implant emits a specific sound signature that can be detected by a network of 56 hydrophones strategically placed throughout the waters of Lower Alabama. These black, cylindrical containers are installed every summer by scientists from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) as part of its Coastal Alabama Acoustic Monitoring Program (CAAMP). 

“We’ve done this with redfish, speckled trout and now with flounder,” says Dr. Sean Powers, professor and department head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama and a senior marine scientist at DISL. “It’s the same technology that they use in submarine warfare.” The project is just one of the many initiatives pursued by Powers and his team of scientists with the Fisheries Ecology Lab.

A wealth of information can be obtained through the tagging of fish, and the goals of researchers vary from species to species. “With flounder, one of the things we want to know is when do they go offshore to spawn?” Powers explains. “The state has restricted harvest in November to allow those fish to move offshore. We want to see if that’s the correct assumption.”

- Sponsors -

Powers discovered marine science in the same way that most of his students have — on early-morning fishing adventures and in the orange glow of a rising sun. Raised in New Orleans, he recounts fishing trips with his dad to places like Hopedale and Delocroix, Louisiana. After earning his Ph.D. from Texas A&M and working at a coastal lab for UNC Chapel Hill, he took a job with the University of South Alabama in 2003 and was promptly stationed at Dauphin Island.

Dr. Sean Powers, a senior marine scientist at DISL.

The Right Place

Understanding the relationship between DISL and the University of South Alabama is key to understanding the founding vision behind the Sea Lab — a vision that was conceived exactly 50 years ago. 

In 1971, the Alabama Legislature established the Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium (MESC) “to provide educational programs in Marine Sciences on both the undergraduate and graduate levels; to promote and encourage pure and applied research in Marine Sciences and related areas and to promote and encourage communication and dialogue among those interested in marine sciences.” A new creation, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, would serve as the administrative home of the consortium. 

The following year, the lab was established on the east end of Dauphin Island, in the former Dauphin Island annex of Brookley Air Force Base. Situated at the junction of Mobile Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Sound, the Sea Lab occupies a commanding position over the water. (At least, it was commanding enough for the United States military; the historic Fort Gaines sits just across the street.)

Today, the consortium is comprised of 23 public and private colleges and universities, allowing the state’s marine science students the opportunity to attend classes and perform laboratory- and field-based research on the barrier island.

“So the legislature, very wisely in my opinion, decided there should only be one marine lab,” Powers explains. In many coastal states, a multitude of labs constantly battle one another for funding. That’s not the case in Alabama. “In the charter for the Sea Lab, it essentially said, ‘You’re being organized to serve the education and research needs of all member universities.’”

Thanks to the campus’s military past, students, faculty and staff can live in what once served as Air Force barracks; graduate students reside on campus year-round, and undergraduate students arrive for classes in the summer. The result is a sense of scientific community — a unity forged in the day-to-day submersion into marine pursuits.

The scope of the lab’s research is mind-boggling: coral reefs, fisheries, seagrass, marine mammals, ocean acidification, tidal marsh ecology, marine toxins, the list goes on. For Lower Alabama residents, DISL couldn’t be in a better place. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency designated Mobile Bay an estuary of national significance, making it one of 28 estuaries identified as requiring preservation. Long before that designation, the Sea Lab began doing its part.

DISL’s floating classroom, the 65-foot R/V Alabama Discovery.

The Right Time

Dr. John Valentine, executive director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, is no backroom figurehead; since arriving at DISL, the senior marine scientist has written or co-authored over 95 grant proposals for research. To Valentine, marking the lab’s half-century anniversary is an opportunity for reflection and reinvigoration.

“For over 50 years now, scientists and students from throughout the state of Alabama have been blessed to have the opportunity to study the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab,” he says. “Here, because we are located at the Gulf’s doorstep, students and scientists are provided with the unique opportunity to easily immerse themselves in the remarkable ecology of the region. It is our goal to continue this tradition for the next 50 years.”

Such sentiment is common at DISL, where there’s always another challenge, another hurdle, another puzzle to solve. While the Sea Lab has plans to officially mark the occasion with a celebration this September, nobody on the eastern tip of Dauphin Island is resting on their laurels; there’s just too much work to do. 

Powers and his team of five research assistants, seven graduate students and four interns at the Fisheries Ecology Lab know this all too well. Although just one facet of the day-to-day operations at DISL, fisheries ecology (or as Powers likes to describe it, “ecology you can eat”) often draws the most public attention and participation.

“One of the reasons I like working on fisheries, besides liking fish, is because it’s something the public values and recognizes,” he says. “Ultimately, we want to do science that matters, and, in this region for sure, marine fisheries management matters.”

His team’s goal, Powers summarizes, is essentially to provide science for sustainable management. 

“A lot of our work is focused on providing population abundances to the state,” he says. “We handle the science behind that and tell them what the results would be if they chose a different management scheme, but we don’t choose the management scheme.”

In the past, this has meant studying the populations of everything from red snapper to amberjack, triggerfish to speckled trout. 

“There are about 20 or so projects running concurrently each year,” adds Crystal Hightower, the Fishery Ecology Lab’s senior research lab manager. 

Many local youngsters are introduced to our coastal environment by DISL.

The Right People

Captain Richard Rutland of Coldblooded Fishing charters has found himself in a position he never would have imagined 12 years ago. That position is number one.

“I’ve actually been named the top tagger for the state of Alabama for four years in a row,” says the fishing guide and Mobile native. 

Rutland first developed a relationship with Sea Lab scientists at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. The event is an unmatched opportunity for researchers to study and catalogue more than 1,000 fish over the three-day fishing tournament. Rutland volunteered to take Sea Lab scientists on an excursion to catch and tag redfish, and before too long, DISL was regularly hiring the fisherman. For the past four years, Rutland estimates the Sea Lab books his services about 40 days a year. The story is just one example of DISL’s efforts to harness the knowledge and manpower of the public.

“We consider Richard part of our fish family,” Hightower says. “We really learned to rely on the knowledge of the local charter captains. We might know the physiology of the fish, the behavior of the fish — we may have read all this literature, but our ideas may not work on the ground. So I think the practicality of Richard’s knowledge after being out there every single day is unmatched.”

Now, the TAG Alabama Program, a partnership between DISL, Coastal Conservation Association Alabama and the University of South Alabama Department of Marine Sciences, allows recreational fishermen the opportunity to participate in fish tagging. And Rutland has discovered a new wrinkle to his business — taking customers on the water who want to do nothing but catch and tag fish.

“It kind of opened up a new opportunity for me there,” he says. “People have a different purpose to go fishing versus just keeping fish.”

According to Scott Bannon, director of the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “The Sea Lab is an invaluable tool to the state of Alabama and the Gulf of Mexico. They provide tremendous data from inshore and offshore research to the state that allows managers to make informed decisions. With Sea Lab assistance, the state of Alabama has developed the world’s largest and best managed artificial reef zone, and that reef zone and their research has led to the successful rebuilding of species such as red snapper.”

Powers is always prepared to talk red snapper. “The project that I get the most questions about, without a doubt, is the red snapper work that we do with the state,” he says. As part of The Great Red Snapper Count, a federally funded two-year research project, the Sea Lab teamed up with 12 institutions of higher learning in order to estimate the abundance of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Preliminary findings from the project indicate that the Gulf contains perhaps three times as much red snapper as previously believed. 

“This idea of not relying on models, that you can get an absolute abundance through direct observations, seems so simple,” Powers says, “but it’s not how fisheries management has been done. And it really started at the Sea Lab. We’ve been doing absolute abundance estimates for our state for about 10 years.”    

For many of us, it seems like the Sea Lab has always been here, as much a part of the landscape as the plants and animals it seeks to protect. As a child, you might have been introduced to the facility through the Discovery Hall Programs and the lab’s K-12 education and outreach initiative. Or your parents might have taken you to the Estuarium, the lab’s public aquarium, to see a starfish up close or to touch a stingray. But the true value of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab lies in the way it touches our lives every day — in ways unseen. 

“People want to come to Alabama to study marine science,” Powers says. “That shows you the reputation of the Sea Lab. The fact that it’s internationally known, operating from a small piece of barrier island off Alabama, is pretty amazing. And it’s happened over these 50 years.”

An aerial look at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab campus, 1974.

50 Years of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab


Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium (MESC) created by state legislature

MESC acquires former U.S. Air Force Base


Dr. Bob Shipp named Acting Director

Discovery Hall Programs initiated


Dr. George Crozier named Executive Director

Hurricane Frederic cuts off Dauphin Island from the mainland


Education Center opens to the public as the initial public aquarium

The Estuarium opens to the public


DISL assumes administrative sponsorship of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program

Marine Science Hall addition named Wiese Hall in honor of longtime supporter of the Marine Science Program at the University of South Alabama


The Shelby Center for Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management and Mesocosm completed

Alabama Center for Ecological Resilience formed in response to Deepwater Horizon oil spill


Dr. John Valentine named Executive Director

Marine Mammal Research Program begins


DISL Foundation hosts the first Marine Environmental Awards Luncheon

Marine Mammal Research Center opens


Estuarium opens the 2,000-square-foot exhibit Windows to the Sea

DISL creates a development office to assist the DISL Foundation with fundraising activities


DISL Foundation awards first Jenny Cook Memorial Scholarship

DISL graduate student dorm (the Albatross building) and portions of Marine Science Hall impacted by more than $3.5 million in damages from Hurricane Sally


DISL marks its 50th anniversary

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!