The Marine Science Institute, a research unit of the University of Texas at Austin, is located in Port Aransas on the north end of Mustang Island, beside the Aransas Pass ship channel, which separates St. Joseph and Mustang islands. The pass itself provides access to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the port cities of Corpus Christi and Aransas Pass. The setting is ideal for a marine science facility. Ships and small boats from the institute have access to both the open-ocean Gulf of Mexico and the bay environments of the Texas coast. Scientists and students can reach a multitude of coastal habitats including hypersaline lagoons, estuaries, mud flats, seagrass meadows, oyster reefs, barrier islands, and the vast environmental domain of the offshore continental shelf. The institute is referred to as the university's "Window on the Sea." Research in marine biology, marine chemistry, marine geology, and physical oceanography is conducted in the field and in the institute's laboratories by faculty, research scientists, and graduate students of the University of Texas and by visiting investigators from other graduate institutions both in and out of state. The institute has a resident staff of about 100, including scientists and support personnel. In the summer it offers a formal teaching program that provides courses in marine science at the graduate and upper-division undergraduate level. A marine education services program also offers opportunities for elementary to college level students who visit the institute to hear lectures, participate in field trips and research cruises, and otherwise use the laboratory's facilities for learning.
Interest in marine science on the Texas coast began as early as December 23, 1892, when the University of Texas Board of Regents informed Governor James S. Hogg of the need to establish a marine station on the Gulf of Mexico. Early attempts to set up a facility in Galveston were unsuccessful. A small building was wiped out by the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and a research vessel donated in 1915 was badly damaged by another tropical storm in April of that year. Interest in the idea of a marine station waned for a time, but was resurrected in 1935 when UT zoologist Elmer J. Lund came to Port Aransas to investigate a massive fish kill caused by a red tide. He and A. H. Wiebe constructed a small, rough-lumber shack on the old corps of engineers dock at Port Aransas. In 1940 the mayor of Port Aransas, Boone Walker, offered the university the current site, a ten-acre tract of his own property, for a biological laboratory. The institute was formally established as the Institute of Marine Science in 1941; Lund was its first director. Early projects included research on marine fishes of Texas and a library. After World War II Lund purchased twelve acres and a building built in the 1890s from the United States Army Corps of Engineers and donated it to the university. In 1945 he established the Publications of the Institute of Marine Science, which was later renamed Contributions in Marine Science and is still published yearly by the institute.
In 1946–47 two permanent frame buildings and a 200-foot pier into Aransas Pass were built. By 1961 a laboratory complex, boathouse and docks, seawater ponds, and other outdoor structures had been completed. In 1963 adjacent land was acquired, and the regents approved a $3 million expansion plan for addition laboratories and a boat basin. The name of the institute was changed in 1968 to Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas. The expansion plan was completed in 1973. In 1974 laboratory and dormitory wings and an apartment house for graduate students were built. Another building complex, completed in 1983, includes an auditorium, a library, and indoor aquaria for public display. The research vessel Longhorn became the institute's research flagship in 1970. This steel-hulled trawler was originally 85 feet long but was lengthened to 105 feet in 1985–86 and substantially refitted. The 57-foot Katy was added to the research fleet for work in the bays and estuaries. In 1990 the institute had seventy-two acres of beachfront land. In 1973 the Texas legislature authorized the Texas Marine Science Institute as a part of the University of Texas at Austin. In 1975 the institute became the Port Aransas Marine Laboratory, was joined with the newly formed Galveston Geophysical Laboratory, and was placed under an umbrella organization called the Marine Science Institute. Both laboratories were affiliated with the Department of Marine Studies on the main campus in Austin, where the central directorate was also located. In 1981 the Institute for Geophysics in Austin was established and incorporated the Galveston Geophysical Laboratory; the Port Aransas facility once again became the sole location of the university's Marine Science Institute.
Research ranges widely at the institute. Scientists and students work on such environmental problems as the effect of toxic chemicals and the restriction of freshwater flow into the bays and estuaries. In addition to field studies, laboratory experiments are conducted in many areas, including work on the blood chemistry of such marine organisms as crustaceans and fishes. Research of this nature has led to a better understanding of molting in the blue crab and discovery of a novel hormone important in the spawning of red drum, an important commercial and recreational fish. Both basic and applied research is conducted at the institute. Basic research includes topics important to the understanding of the Texas Coastal Zone—for example, how nutrients are cycled, how energy is passed between each trophic level (i.e., in food chains), how marine plant and animal species survive and reproduce in the environment, and how these organisms respond to oil spills, dredging, domestic waste, hurricanes, droughts, freezes, and other phenomena. Research in mariculture provides an example of the applied work of the institute. The culture of red drum, speckled trout, and red snapper is being pursued and will provide fish farmers with information on stocking density, disease prevention, control of spawning, and development of inexpensive food resources at each level of the life history of cultured species. Support for research and for physical plant maintenance is from two sources. Most of the fixed operating costs are provided annually from the university's budget via state-appropriated funds, whereas most of the research at the institute is supported by outside grant and contract funds acquired by faculty and research scientists from state and federal funding agencies or from private donors and foundations. The institute, like all other academic institutions and its parent component, the University of Texas at Austin, exists to provide research, education, and service for the benefit of the citizens of the state and the nation.