Building on more than three decades of scientific exploration, and public calls for additional protections as well as extensive coordination with the Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to expand Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. The proposal would further protect critical habitat including 14 additional reefs and banks in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. The proposal would increase the sanctuary’s protected area from 56 square miles to 160 square miles and extend existing sanctuary protections to the new area including prohibiting anchoring, limiting the destructive impacts of activities related to fishing with bottom-tending gears and oil and gas exploration and production, and salvaging activities on sensitive biological resources.
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary lives one hundred miles off the Texas and Louisiana Coast and is the only sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. It officially became the 10th sanctuary on January 17, 1992 and was expanded to include Stetson Bank in 1996. The existing sanctuary protects three separate reef areas: East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank and Stetson Bank. Home to an ecosystem created by water from 31 states and Canada, the existing sanctuary protects some of the healthiest and most resilient coral reef communities in the entire Caribbean and western Atlantic region including salt domes, or underwater mountains, on which the reef-building corals live.
As the Gulf of Mexico’s only sanctuary, Flower Garden Banks is faced with the challenges of an economically-important area including risks to the ecosystem from oil and gas drilling, important commercial fisheries, and climate change. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest marine oil spill in the U.S., accelerated interest in additional protections for marine life and habitats in the Gulf. The expansion of the sanctuary began after a review of the sanctuary’s management plan in 2012. Since then, NOAA has drafted proposals, considered public comments, and worked with the SAC before creating the updated proposal that includes 14 reefs and banks. The proposal will help increase the resiliency of economically-important marine ecosystems that provide essential services locally and globally. With growing threats like climate change and oil and gas activities, the sanctuary needs added protection for the recreationally and commercially important fish, threatened or endangered species of manta rays, sea turtles, and corals, and other species that call these waters home.
National marine sanctuaries are places where we can conserve our waters, for the good of the world and everything in it. Be the voice for national marine sanctuaries, marine monuments and protecting America’s waters. These special places belong to all of us.