The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute can feel like the edge of the world. It stands on a corner of Mustang Island, surrounded by windswept grassy dunes and a seemingly endless expanse of Gulf water. But this unassuming campus is perfectly positioned to study our planet’s largest resource. MSI isn’t an edge; it’s a forefront.
“Seventy-one percent of the globe is covered by seawater,” says Robert Dickey, director of the Marine Science Institute. “It regulates our environment, our climate, and it feeds over a billion people from the seafood that we draw from it. It produces half of the oxygen that we breathe, and it actually absorbs the CO2 at the same time. It’s a very important facet of our world.”
Dickey’s passion for the ocean is apparent. His office is covered with framed photos of fish and other underwater scenes. A surfboard rests against a wall in one corner. In another, a 3-foot-tall fossil showcases an early starfish ancestor.
Dickey has been head of the institute since 2013, and his term has been shaped by natural disaster. Hurricane Harvey made landfall here as a Category 4 hurricane in August 2017. MSI endured wind gusts as high as 132 mph. Pebbles from MSI’s gravel roof became projectiles, smashing the windows of adjacent buildings.
“We were severely damaged by Harvey,” Dickey says. As he spoke, a team was down the hall, updating large windows in a breezeway with hurricane-resistant panes.
MSI sustained an estimated $45 million in damage and lost most of its research fish. Some buildings such as the Marine Science Education Center are still closed. The institute estimates that it was about 65% recovered by the start of 2019.
“UTMSI is a tremendous asset to our area. It is vitally important to support and rebuild its facilities post-hurricane,” says Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, who represents the area in the Legislature and has been a strong advocate for securing the funds to rebuild.
As MSI recovers from Harvey, it will continue to build upon a nearly 80-year history of excellence. The institute has produced world-renowned science, aquaculture breakthroughs and ever-evolving sets of data. MSI works to communicate those discoveries through public outreach and education programs that improve ocean literacy.
“We’re a tight-knit community in Port Aransas, and The University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute has been a building block of the community for decades,” says Port Aransas City Manager David Parsons. “Port Aransas is fortunate to have a partner like the university that provides both sought-after jobs and high-quality science. As a tourism-based economy, Port Aransas benefits from the research they do on our coasts and fisheries.”
While the science shines at MSI, Dickey says the people drive the discovery. Harvey might have damaged the buildings, but the team has pulled together to maintain MSI’s mission. Staff members, faculty members and students work together so this small outfit can make an outsized impact.
“The staff are just so talented. And they work hard,” Dickey says.