Who remembers the story we did called Fish Christmas? Probably not many, I’d guess… It was early in our life as a newsletter. Ever since, I’ve wanted to catch up with Dr. Sean Powers, Director of the University of South Alabama's Stokes School of Marine & Environmental Sciences to learn more about their impact on the Scenic 98 Coastal area.

In February, Dr. Powers was the inaugural speaker for a new lecture series USA is conducting monthly at their Fairhope campus. Linda and I attended and were impressed by how much the school has grown, under the leadership of the late Dr. Bob Shipp, and now under Sean Powers.

In addition to the University of South Alabama’s medical school and healthcare campuses, the Marine and Environmental Sciences programs are a shining star throughout the central Gulf Coast. With the campus located among one of the most bio-diverse fish habitat areas in the world, it makes perfect sense.

“Folks like us because we do fish,” Dr. Powers says. “What distinguishes USA from other state universities is our location to the coast. We are the hub for everything environmental and every other discipline on campus. We want to get the message to other environmental and conservation groups that we want to be a partner.”

“We hope the next step in our program will be to create an incubator for environmental and conservation organizations. We’d like to help foster next-level programs that are theorized and born right here before they can be implemented worldwide. We believe President Bonner and our Provost, Dr. Andrea Kent are solidly behind that idea.” 

This is not a new concept by any means. The School has a long relationship working with non-governmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Alabama Coastal Foundation, Forever Wild, and Coastal Conservation Association of Alabama, acquiring sensitive wetlands, replenishing wild oyster beds, and studying fish habitats to ensure they are preserved and protected.

This is where the term Fish Christmas comes into play. Dr. Powers and his team of faculty and students work closely with fishing guides and fishermen to comprehend everything about the native fish in our waters. One of the clearest examples of how these partnerships can benefit the area is the School’s involvement in the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. For students and colleagues from all over the country, the rodeo is like Christmas (or Fishmas) in terms of the number of fish and variety of species that can be studied.

Occurring in July, the ADSFR works closely with Dr. Powers and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to gain an understanding of what is required to sustain fish populations for both the recreational angler and the commercial fishing industry. Marine biology students from across the country and the world converge on Dauphin Island to take courses. “It’s huge for us,” says Dr. Powers.

I asked about the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and how it came into being. “There is a lot of confusion and misconceptions about the Sea Lab,” he tells me. “South Alabama does not own the Sea Lab. It was formed by the State of Alabama Legislature in 1972 as a consortium of 22 state universities. Wisely, the legislature didn’t want, nor did they have the funds, to support competing marine labs. But because of our proximity, we have the largest presence of all the Universities.”

He tells me any state university can send students to the Sea Lab to take marine biology and environmental science courses. The Sea Lab is overseen by an Executive Director, Dr. John Valentine, and an executive committee of five institutions chosen from the 22 member Universities and colleges.  The University of South Alabama’s President Jo Bonner serves as the Board Chair.

“The Sea Lab’s primary mission is to serve the universities in the state and lead experiential marine science learning across all ages. There are very few K-12 students who have not been through the Sea Lab at some point in their primary school life. It is an amazing resource and has played a phenomenal role in increasing environmental literacy throughout the State.” 

South Alabama provides the largest number of college students and has the largest footprint at the Sea Lab with seven faculty members, and many undergraduate and graduate students. “Our school would not exist if we didn’t have the Sea Lab,” he says. “It’s the most important partnership we have and we leverage so much from having it in our backyard. It’s allowed us to become the premier Marine Environmental Science program in the Central Gulf Coast.”

He tells me what the local fishing guides bring in. “They help with tagging fish and reporting what they see on the water.” He mentions Bobby Abtuscato who operates A-Team Fishing Adventures and Richard Rutland with Cold Blooded Fishing as being enthusiastic partners in studying fish. “We sent a couple of students out to catch Redfish to study. They were in a Sea Lab boat that had broken down. Richard ran by them in his boat and ended up towing them back to the dock.” 

Richard asked them what they were doing. “Trying to catch Redfish for the Sea Lab,” they said. “How many do you have?” “Three,” they replied. “How long have you been at it?” Richard asked. “Five days,” they said. “Let me help you out,” he told them. So they went together on Richard’s boat and caught several live Redfish for the Sea Lab to study. 

I’ve fished with Richard a few times, and he has never let us keep any of the Redfish we’ve caught. He’s a true conservationist. He is also a member of the Mobile Jaycees which operates the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo and works with Sean Powers and his team to collect and study fish. 

Dr. Powers's daughter began working at the ADSFR when she was three years old. She started at the Ice Bin, where the fish are kept on ice for the public to see. This viewing station serves as an outreach program to teach the public something about the fish. 

Now she is sampling the fish, removing the muscle tissue and ear bones to see how old the fish are. “The ear bones have rings, just like trees, so you can age the fish. She is now in high school and has decided to study marine biology, just like her mom and dad. “She wants to take over the family business,” he says. 

I asked Dr. Powers how he came to be a marine biologist. He was born and raised in New Orleans and growing up, fished along the coast of Louisiana with his dad and uncle. “Why do I study what I study? When I learned I could make a living studying fish, I was hooked,” he says with a laugh. “I still get seasick, so I choose my offshore fishing days carefully.” 

He attended Loyola University in New Orleans where he earned his degree in Biology and Chemistry. He earned his Masters in Biology at the University of New Orleans. His Ph.D. in Biology and Oceanography is from Texas A&M, where he met his wife - who is also a fisheries biologist.  From there, he did a stint in Washington DC as a Marine Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation. 

After two years in DC, he was recruited as a post-doctoral researcher and later a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He spent most of his time on the North Carolina coast at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, NC where his wife earned her master's degree. He tells me this is when he became a big UNC basketball fan. “Go Tar Heels!”

Four years later, Dr. Bob Shipp recruited Sean to South Alabama. The Department of Marine Sciences was established in 1991, and Dr. Powers took over as Chair of the department in 2013. Started as an offshoot of the Biology Department, it now has 75 Masters and Ph.D. students and they recently added undergraduate programs, which have 170 students in Marine Sciences and Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, in only its second year.

“Half of our graduate students go on to university careers, 25% go into State and Federal agencies, and the other 25% enter environmental consulting. The big change I’ve seen in the twenty-five or so years I’ve been doing this is that there are so many more good job opportunities in this field, and it is growing rapidly year by year.”

“People don’t realize how big environmental sustainability is in the corporate world today. It’s a huge part of what companies are focused on. Most large businesses have sustainability offices that are responsible for making sense of their general business practices. What are the long-term effects on the environment?” 

“For graduates, the top people in these divisions are making generous salaries. Companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and others have complete staffs and it’s their job to look at the complete cycle of business management. It’s a field that offers a lot of opportunities. We are part of that.” 

We talk for a minute about the school’s top priorities and focus. “We are really trying to push the conservation of land in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. Our Delta Initiative is designed so that we can learn all we can about the biodiversity of the area. It’s important for fisheries. It’s also important as an area used for sequestration, including carbon offsets, which is perfectly valid.”

“We are doing things here that didn’t exist 10 years ago. We have incorporated Environmental Sociology into our program which addresses  how we can better inform people about the consequences of the decisions they are making.” 

“We are hiring new faculty for positions in Environmental Law and Policy and brought Ben Raines to help spread the word, as our Environmental Fellow and Journalist in Residence. We’ve just brought in a new faculty member with experience with Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to bring the same level of attention to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. So we are aggressively moving forward.”

This “comprehensive effort” approach is working. Dr. Powers credits the many public-private partnerships that have been established over the years. “The Delta is a space that no other university on earth has access to like we do. We want to immerse ourselves in it and fill that space.” 

He credits the Mobile Jaycees with one of the most important outreach programs and scientific activism with the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. In talking about South Alabama and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, he says that generally, the public doesn’t realize the national and international reputation it has. “It is something we should take a lot of pride in.”

And if there was one sign he could hang on the front door to the Stokes School of Marine and Environmental Science?

 “Partners Wanted!”

Mar 27, 2024
Water Side of Scenic 98

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