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Gulf Ecology Division

A Brief History of Sabine Island

  Sabine Island has the form of a basin which has been filled by an international mixture of rocks, coral , pottery and soil. On the island, there is a deposit of black earth carried by barge from Louisiana which accounts for the luxuriant growth of oleander, fig trees and other flora in sharp contrast to the appearance of plant life in the glacial quartz deposits of "sugar white sand" on nearby Santa Rosa Island.  Sabine Island has been developed according to its uses as a ballast crib, quarantine station, oyster research laboratory, fisheries research laboratory and finally as an environmental research laboratory.
the ballast Island

The Ballast Island (1876 - 1903)   Because of health regulations intended to stop the spread of yellow fever, ships entering the port of Pensacola were required to discharge ballast and undergo fumigation. Construction of the "Ballast Island" began on Saturday, September 23, 1876, when Captain Fingal Klem of the Bark Iona of Laurvig, Norway decided to unload his ballast directly west of a place where a flock of gulls were sunning themselves on a sand bar at the mouth of Little Sabine Bay. Since this location could be used at no risk to navigation, a new order of ballast disposal was initiated.

By 1903, the island had stabilized at its present state. Shortly afterwards, yellow fever was conquered making the dumping of ship's ballast for fumigation procedures obsolete. Also, sailing ships were being superseded by steam-driven vessels which carried no ballast.


The Quarantine Station (1903 - 1936)   In 1903, the island was transferred by the War Department to the Treasury Department and left dormant. In 1906, a hurricane destroyed the quarantine station nearby.

Shortly thereafter, a new quarantine station was built on the ballast island. It was outfitted with a hospital, an isolation hospital, caretaker's, pharmacist's and doctor's residences, a doctor's office, fumigation shed, workshop and boathouse.

The island remained a quarantine station until 1925, when changes in quarantinable diseases and detention, together with improved quarantine methods, rendered the facilities obsolete. The buildings were placed in caretaker status.


the oyster Island
The Oyster Laboratory (1937 - 1947)   In 1937, the quarantine station was transferred to the Bureau of Fisheries. Its new function was to establish an experimental oyster farm on a semi-commercial scale to determine costs of production, effects of salinity and predators on oysters on the Gulf Coast, and to compare the results with those obtained by the Bureau in Atlantic waters.

The Works Progress Administration in cooperation with the Public Works Administration enlarged and modified the quarantine buildings, laid walkways and built large tanks for salinity experiments. The island buildings now included a large two-story laboratory building, a residence, a dormitory for visiting investigators, a boathouse with a protecting breakwater and a workshop.

Little oyster research was carried on during World War II, the laboratorie's function being modified to help the war effort. In 1947, the island was again placed in caretaker status.


Fisheries Research Laboratory in 1955
The Fisheries Research Laboratory (1948 - 1969)
  In 1948, the Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service established a laboratory which placed emphasis on cyclic changes in animal populations and pollution effects of agricultural chemicals. Scientific personnel were still required to live on the island because of its isolated location.

Fisheries Research Laboratory in 1961

In 1960, Dr. Philip Butler, director of the facility gave the island the official name "Sabine Island" for postal purposes.

Fisheries Research Laboratory in 1966

By 1962, the laboratory had 9 buildings, 5,000 square feet of wet laboratory working space, 1,000 square feet of storage and shop facilities, a 36-foot diesel powered work boat equipped for trawling and dredging, and several smaller boats with outboard motors.


Sabine Island in 1971
    Sabine Island and surrounding area     Latest aerial view of Sabine Island

The EPA Laboratory (1970 - Present)

In 1970, the laboratory was integrated into the Office of Research and Development of the Environmental Protection Agency. Its main mission was to "bridge the gap from ecosystem health to human health by assessing the transport of chemicals in the marine environment and the potential transfer from the marine food web to man."

A new "wetlab" facility was dedicated in 1977 to house a seawater toxicology laboratory and an analytical chemistry Laboratory. By 1978, Sabine Island housed 10 frame and 13 temporary buildings, which included a technical library and a computer center.

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