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Expansion proposal for Flower Garden Banks sanctuary released

New boundaries would protect Gulf habitat
May 1, 2020
Colorful sponges and bright green algae adorn the cap of Bright Bank in NOAA's Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, which is shallow enough to scuba dive.

Building on more than three decades of scientific exploration and public calls for additional protections, NOAA today released a proposal to expand Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to protect additional important Gulf of Mexico habitat.

NOAA is proposing to add 14 additional reefs and banks to the sanctuary that provide essential habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish, as well as habitats for threatened or endangered species including sea turtles, corals, and manta rays. The sanctuary would expand from 56 square miles to 160 square miles.

This proposed expansion demonstrates NOAA’s consistent support to the National Marine Sanctuary System that was highlighted in the November 2019 designation of the new sanctuary in Mallows Bay on the Potomac River in Maryland.

“Expanding the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary will significantly contribute to the conservation of America’s coral reefs, while supporting STEM education, outdoor tourism, and recreation in the Gulf of Mexico,” said retired Navy rear admiral Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator.

Dense fields of brightly colored gorgonians and sponges grow atop the ancient basalt spires at Alderdice Bank in NOAA's Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.
Dense fields of brightly colored gorgonians and sponges grow atop the ancient basalt spires at Alderdice Bank in NOAA's Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA)

The plan would also extend existing sanctuary protections to provide for more comprehensive management and protection of sensitive underwater features and marine habitats associated with continental shelf-edge reefs and banks in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Hook-and-line anglers would not be affected by the proposal.

“With coral ecosystems under threat worldwide from a variety of impacts, we need additional protection for these important ecosystems,” said G. P. Schmahl, superintendent of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. “The addition of new reefs and banks in the sanctuary will help increase the resilience of marine ecosystems that provide essential services for the Gulf of Mexico region and help support local economies.”

The public is invited to comment on the changes to the proposed boundaries as well as the potential for pelagic longline and spearfishing exemptions, through July 3. Those comments will be used to develop a final environmental impact statement and final rule, which will then be available for public review. 

A description of the expansion plan, including boundaries and resources the areas contain, can be found at https://flowergarden.noaa.gov/management/expansionnpr.html 

NOAA’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 1992, is located 115 miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. Stetson Bank, located 70 miles off the Texas coast, was added to the sanctuary through congressional action in 1996. The three banks, encompassing 56 square miles, include the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States, deep-water reef communities, and other essential habitats for a variety of marine species. 

Expansion of the sanctuary emerged as one of the top priority issues during a review of the sanctuary’s management plan in 2012, and continued to garner strong public support after the release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 2016. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which resulted in the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, also accelerated interest in expansion, with government scientists and non-governmental organizations urging additional protections for marine life and essential Gulf habitat. 

Three online hearings are planned for the public to learn more about the proposal and submit oral comments. Phone numbers are included for those without Internet access.

June 8, 1-3 pm CDT
Register: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/9162740973626770700offsite link 
Phone: 213-929-4232, access code 704-409-034

June 8, 6-8 pm CDT 
Register: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/1668176149101021196offsite link 
Phone: 213-929-4232, access code 682-728-246

June 11, 6-8 pm CDT 
Register: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/5569362151706075916offsite link 
Phone: 415-655-0052, access code 486-551-096

IMPORTANT: If you would like to provide comment during a meeting, please register.

  • Select “yes” during the registration. Order of comments will be based on registration date and time.

  • If you will be participating by phone, please send an email to fgbexpansion@noaa.gov to add your name to the speaker list.

If you cannot participate in one of the the virtual meetings, there are several other options for submitting written comments through July 3:

  • Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. In the search window, type NOAA-NOS-2019-0033, click the “Comment Now!” icon and complete the required fields. 

  • Mail: George P. Schmahl, Sanctuary Superintendent; Flower Garden Banks National Sanctuary, 4700 Avenue U, Bldg 216; Galveston, Texas 77551

Contact:
Jerry Slaff, 202-236-6662 (cell)