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From Snappers to Sanctuary

Sanctuary staff, answering phone: Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, how may we help you?

Caller: Hi, I'd like to send flowers to my daughter. She's graduating from Texas A&M next week. We are SO proud of her!

Sanctuary staff: Congratulations! I’m sorry we can’t help you, though. You see, this is not a flower shop. It’s a federal agency that protects a system of special underwater areas. This particular National Marine Sanctuary is located in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. It has some great coral and sponge habitats, different types of fish, sea turtles...

A school of gray snapper swimming in open water.

Little did the snapper fishers of old know how many future “educational moments” they were creating when they nicknamed a couple of favorite fishing spots the Texas Flower Gardens. From their discovery in the early 1900s, to their designation as a National Marine Sanctuary in 1992, the Flower Garden Banks have come a long way. With proper management of human activities, the Flower Garden and Stetson Banks can be expected to continue providing enjoyment and wonder for humans and providing crucial habitat for marine life for years to come.

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Discovery and Exploration

Although fishers are believed to have discovered and named the Flower Garden Banks, the first recorded discovery did not occur until 1936. The Flower Garden and Stetson Banks were included in a hydrographic survey of the Gulf of Mexico, conducted by the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey (now the National Ocean Service, of which the National Marine Sanctuary System is a part). The survey provided valuable information about the geology and topography of the banks. Reviewers of this and other surveys conducted in the 1950s concluded that the banks probably originated from plugs of salt pushing the overlaying sediments up to form underwater mountains.

Looking down on divers swimming over reef.

Led by Dr. Thomas Pulley, then Director Emeritus of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, eager explorers in the early 1960’s set out to determine the truth behind the rumors of coral reefs in the northern Gulf of Mexico. In addition to professional researchers, the explorers included volunteers from all walks of life. Some thought the area would be too cold, or too turbid, to support any extensive coral reef development. The SCUBA diving explorations, however, revealed that the Flower Garden Banks did support healthy, pristine coral reef systems.

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In Need of Protection

In the late 1960s, Robert Alderdice and James Covington established the Flower Gardens Ocean Research Center (FGORC), heralding a period of intense multi-agency, interdisciplinary research, which continues to this day. Results of this on-going research prompted government agencies to begin discussing the need to protect the banks from increasing human activities, including oil and gas extraction, anchoring on the reefs and harvesting fish, corals and other invertebrates. With passage of the Marine Research and Sanctuaries Act in 1972, researchers began discussing the Flower Garden Banks as a candidate for designation as a National Marine Sanctuary.

Platform HI389A in the Gulf of Mexico.

By then, recreational divers were also entranced with the Flower Garden Banks. The Houston Underwater Club led the charge to have the banks officially designated by submitting a formal letter of nomination in 1979. Due to a number of issues, it was 11 years before President George H. Bush ultimately signed the document designating the Flower Garden Banks as our 10th National Marine Sanctuary on January 17, 1992. Stetson Bank was brought into the system in 1996.

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Sanctuary Beginnings

Having finally leaped the hurdle of designation, the task before the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary staff now centered on how best to manage and protect these fragile reefs. Funding limitations meant that the sanctuary must choose between hiring a full-time manager or leasing office space that first year. Enter Dr. Tom Bright and Texas Sea Grant to the rescue!

Tom Bright in 2010During the 20 years leading up to designation, Dr. Bright and his graduate students at Texas A&M University worked steadily to explore the banks and conduct research that would ultimately form much of the knowledge base for managing the resources. Not content to merely collect data, Dr. Bright took an active role in seeking protected status for the Flower Garden Banks. When researchers captured an anchoring incident on video, he made certain the video became a catalyst in the designation process. Considered by many to be the ‘father’ of the sanctuary, Dr. Bright was not about to allow a minor issue like funding impede its success. As Director of Texas Sea Grant, he established a partnership with the fledgling sanctuary. Part of Sea Grant’s contribution to the partnership included free office space in its College Station facility during the sanctuary’s first year. Although it may seem an odd location for a marine protected area's base of operations, it actually helped solidify the sanctuary’s close ties with the research community.

Steve GittingsDr. Steve Gittings was selected as the first manager (and sole employee!) of the sanctuary. He brought several years of Flower Garden Banks research to the new position. Under his leadership, sanctuary programs flourished. Working partnerships with the Minerals Management Service continued and enhanced their historic protective measures of the banks related to oil and gas industry activities. Research partnerships were expanded to include additional universities and government agencies. Education and outreach efforts were initiated. Volunteers were recruited. Education and research coordinators were brought on board. Support from the recreational dive community, oil and gas industry, government and private sectors grew steadily during the sanctuary’s first ten years. These partnerships were responsible for the addition of Stetson Bank to the sanctuary in 1996.

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Continued Planning

GP Schmahl in 2012In 1999, transfer of leadership to Mr. George “G.P.” Schmahl heralded a subtle shift in management focus for the sanctuary. Drawing upon his extensive management and research experience with Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, G.P. has continued to build on the strong foundation previously established. As the sanctuary continues to mature, program efforts transition from straight exploration focused research and public awareness outreach toward more issue-based research and outreach.

Recent projects have focused on the interdependency among sanctuary banks and neighboring topographic features (underwater ‘hills’ and ridges) to help us plan for future management efforts. A new Management Plan was released in April 2012 that makes use of this information and recommends sanctuary expansion as well as further study of the impacts resulting from fishing and diving in the sanctuary.

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International Recognition

On October 27, 2012 Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary was formally listed under the Special Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol of the Cartagena Convention. Eligible sites for listing under the SPAW Protocol are those coastal and marine areas that are ecologically important to the Wider Caribbean region.

In signing the SPAW Protocol, the U.S. committed to take the necessary measures to protect, preserve and sustainably manage areas that require conservation to safeguard their special value, and threatened or endangered species of flora and fauna. Such areas include representative habitats, critical habitats, economically and/or socially valuable areas, and areas of special significance.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was previously recognized under SPAW.

The past and future successes of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary would not be possible without the passion and dedication of our many partners. As we move forward, we can all look back at past accomplishments with pride and look forward with optimism for the future.

Presentation Report (242kb pdf)

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weather report observations cool stuff get wet

Small, knobby corals in foreground; boulder of brain coral in background.  Long, fingery branches of purple sponge anchored in knobby corals and standing upright.
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