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A History of Marine Science in Escambia County

Photograph of blue crab underwater

Blue Crab on the bottom of Pensacola Bay

Pensacola has had a strong tie to the Gulf of Mexico and the bay since its settlement in 1559.  Most of the estuaries along the northern Gulf are drowned-river valleys.  This type of estuary tends to be very wide and very shallow.  They are basically depressions in the landscape that filled with ice-melt at the end of the last ice age.  “Achuse”, as the Native Americans called Pensacola Bay, is a little different in that it is deeper than most.  This is one of the reasons the Spanish decided to settle here; you could sail your ships to protected waters during summer storms.  There were three different settlement events in Pensacola but all three were on the water front.  The bay was important as a source of food.  The archeology department at the Universityof West Floridahas discovered that the Native Americans, settlers and soldiers fed on oysters and fish. The higher brass apparently included turtle and alligator in their diet.  The bay and was also important for traveling and commerce.  Sailing was the primary mode of transportation at that time.  As the population grew and technology improved Pensacola became a major port along the northern Gulf.  The primary commodity was timber but bricks, cotton, and other marketable goods were brought to and from the community via the port.  The U.S. Navy selected Pensacola as a site for a navy yard when the state became a U.S.territory in 1821.  Live oak trees planted near Gulf Breeze served as a resource for the building of many of the ships at this yard, including the USS Constitution (ole’ ironsides).

As the city grew offshore commercial fishing increased, particularly the old “snapper smacks” that fished for red snapper.  Pensacola red snapper was very popular in many of the restaurants in the northeast.  The shipyards near the navy base spread to private ones along Bayou Chico and the community itself began to move along the north shore of the bay.  Creosote plants became a common site as they treated lumber to protect from the infamous “shipworm” that caused so much damage to piers and ships. A sewage treatment was built as well as a series of bridges to support a new technology called the car.  More commercial private developments began to appear along the waterfront of the bay, its tributaries, and on Santa Rosa Island itself; many with septic tanks.  As smaller boats at affordable prices became available, recreational fishing and water skiing joined the commercial fishermen and day sailors using the bay and gulf.  Commercial traffic increased at the port and with the introduction of the Intracoastal Waterway System goods could be move with safety form the rough waters of the gulf.  Barges carrying coal for our new power plant, commercial tankers, and the USS Lexington at NAS Pensacola all required dredging of the bay and dredge spoil islands became part of the bay system.

This increased activity on the bay increased the stress on the resource.  Water quality problems began and caused a decrease in marine life.  This degrading of our marine environment began to stress some local industries that had been around for years.  Fish production decreased, fish kills and no swimming alerts increased.  It was obvious that a better understanding of how the ecology of the bay and gulf works and what impact human activity had on it was needed.  This is the primary objective of marine science.  Today there are multiple public agencies and private consulting firms in our area that conduct a variety of research and assessments on different aspects of the marine environment.  The University of West Florida opened in the 1960’s and brought with it one of the few bachelor’s degree programs in marine science found in the state.  A fisheries research station opened on Pensacola Beach and would later become the Environmental Protection Agency’s research lab.  The Florida Department of Environmental Protection opened an office and lab downtown.  Marine scientists were hired by the state park and national park systems, and by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to conduct research and assist the community with managing its marine resources.  The city of Pensacola, Escambia County, and many of the water front industries in our community now employee marine scientists to help monitor our impact on the bay.  We also have a host of citizen based organizations that have an interest in the resources and water quality here.

There is a lot going on in our local marine environment and plenty of opportunities for locals and visitors to learn more.  There is more information on special topics on this site.  Let us know if you have any questions or would like to see a section that is currently not listed.

 

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