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The region in which Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary resides is commonly known as the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. East Flower Garden, West Flower Garden, and Stetson Banks are only three among dozens of banks scattered along the continental shelf in this region.

Black and white map showing the banks and reefs of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico
Reefs and banks of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico

The first comprehensive descriptions of these reefs and banks was published by Texas A&M University researchers, Drs. Tom Bright, Richard Rezak, David McGrail, and others, as part of a project funded by Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), now known as Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). 

Researchers on the deck of a ship in the Gulf of Mexico in 1972
Researchers on a 1972 FGORC expedition to the Flower Garden Banks. Image Courtesy of Rusty Putt.

Their explorations in the 1970s and 1980s were conducted in response to increased pressures by the oil and gas industry. The findings from these explorations were presented in a compilation of BLM report documents and a book entitled Reefs and Banks of the Gulf of Mexico, published in 1985. Within these documents the authors presented the initial zonation scheme for deepwater habitats in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.

Since 1998, the sanctuary research team has put considerable effort and resources into increasing our knowledge of these reefs and banks. With the help of many partners, they have obtained high-resolution multibeam bathymetry, then groundtruthed the areas to characterize the habitats of key features in the region.

Full color map showing reefs and banks of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.  Shallowest areas are orange. Deepest areas are blue.Multibeam map of the northwestern Gulf banks with
sanctuary boundaries marked

In 2008, FGBNMS staff published a revised version of the biological zonation scheme.  This updated scheme was made possible by advances in technology such as high-resolution multibeam mapping capabilities, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) with cameras sending real-time images from the seafloor, accurate tracking of vehicles operating at depth, high-resolution digital photography, scanning electron microscopy, and genetic advances in species identification.

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Only East Flower Garden, West Flower Garden, and Stetson Banks are currently under the protection of the National Marine Sanctuary program. However, the other banks do have some level of protection through Minerals Management Service (MMS) and NOAA Fisheries.

MMS regulates the oil and gas industry in regards to their interaction with the reefs and banks through Topographic Features Stipulations which establish No Activity Zones at the topographic features.

Map showing the MMS-regulated areas of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico
MMS regulatory areas in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico

Several of the reefs and banks in the region have been designated as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs) through NOAA Fisheries Essential Fisheries Habitat (EFH) legislation, which only applies to fishing vessels.   Although this HAPC designation on its own does not carry any protective measures, it identifies the site as an area for special consideration during individual species assessments. 

Map showing Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs) in the western portion of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico
HAPC zones in the western section of the
northwestern Gulf banks

There is an additional level of designation, a Coral HAPC, which does carry regulations that prohibit bottom trawling, buoy gear, pots or traps, and bottom anchoring.  In the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, both East and West Flower Garden Banks and McGrail Bank carry this designation due to their significant coral reefs. 

Map showing locations of Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs) in the eastern portion of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico
HAPC boundaries in the eastern section of the
northwestern Gulf banks

The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council agreed to include Stetson Bank under the Coral HAPC designation, as well, in order to avoid future confusion by users of different parts of the sanctuary. 

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Following is a selection of reefs and banks of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, listed from west to east. Click on each bank name for more detailed information and images.

Horseshoe Bank - named by sanctuary staff for its shape

MacNeil Bank - named for F. Stearns MacNeil, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist

Rankin Bank - named for John L. Rankin of Minerals Management Service

28 Fathom Bank - named for its depth

Bright Bank - named for Thomas Bright, a Texas A&M University marine biologist

Geyer Bank - named for Richard A. Geyer, a Texas A&M University geophysicist

McGrail Bank (formerly 18 Fathom Bank) - named for David W. McGrail, a Texas A&M and Coast Guard oceanographer

Sonnier Bank (formerly Three Hickey Rocks, also known as Candy Mountain) - named for Farley Sonnier, an offshore wildlife photographer

Alderdice Bank - named for Robert Alderdice, founder of Flower Garden Ocean Research Center (FGORC)

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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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