2018 Expansion Recommendation
At their meeting on May 9, 2018, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) Advisory Council voted to accept the recommendation for sanctuary expansion proposed by its Boundary Expansion Working Group (BEWG). The council’s recommendation supports expansion of FGBNMS through inclusion of 14 additional reefs and banks in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. If this recommendation is accepted by NOAA, it would expand the sanctuary by approximately 104 square miles, bringing the total area of the sanctuary to 160.4 square miles.
The reefs and banks under consideration are located along the outer edge of the continental shelf, between 70 and 120 miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. These areas are comprised of coral reefs, deepwater coral communities, and associated marine environments that provide habitat for iconic species such as manta rays, sea turtles, and whale sharks, and nursery areas for numerous fish species of commercial and recreational importance.
NOAA released a proposal for sanctuary expansion in June of 2016, including a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that presented a range of five alternatives for public review and comment. NOAA’s preferred alternative (Alternative 3) proposed adding 15 reefs and banks, comprising approximately 383 square miles. The Advisory Council’s recommendation includes 14 of the banks contained in NOAA’s preferred alternative, but with modified boundaries that result in smaller areas around most of the features.
Recommendation for Regulations
NOAA’s DEIS proposed to apply the existing FGBNMS regulations to the expansion areas, including the prohibition of anchoring by all vessels, and restricting fishing to conventional hook and line gear only.
The Advisory Council’s recommendation also addressed potential regulations that will be applied to the existing and expanded sanctuary. First, the Council supported the recommendations developed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) regarding fishing regulations within sanctuary expansion areas. These recommendations were the result of a formal consultation between FGBNMS and GMFMC required by the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.
In general, GMFMC recommended the creation of restricted fishing zones above specified depth contours (ranging between 55 and 85 meters) for each bank, corresponding with existing “No Activity Zones” identified by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) for offshore oil and gas activities. Within these areas, only conventional hook and line fishing gear could be used, and anchoring by fishing vessels would be prohibited. Outside of those areas, historical fishing practices (bottom longlines, anchoring) would continue to be allowed.
In addition, the Advisory Council recommended the following regulatory actions: 1) removing the existing prohibition regarding the possession of spearguns at East and West Flower Garden and Stetson Banks, 2) allowing free-diving spearfishing in the expanded areas, and 3) requiring the use of “weak links” for anchors on vessels fishing within the sanctuary.
What Happens Next?
The Advisory Council’s recommendations represent a continuation of an ongoing effort by the sanctuary to work closely with community and stakeholder groups to protect areas of national significance in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA is extremely grateful for the input from its advisory council and working groups.
The FGBNMS Advisory Council recommendation has been forwarded to NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries for consideration and further action. NOAA will evaluate the Advisory Council’s recommendation and revise the preferred alternative, as appropriate.
Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order 13795, NOAA will also request an analysis from the Department of Interior regarding energy or mineral resource potential within the proposed areas and potential impact of the proposed expansion on the development of those resources. NOAA will also continue to coordinate with GMFMC regarding fishing regulations in the proposed expansion areas.
National Marine Sanctuaries protect our nation’s most vital and iconic coastal marine resources. Through active research, management and public engagement, we sustain healthy environments that are a foundation for thriving communities and stable economies. The Gulf Coast economy is fundamentally linked to the health of the Gulf of Mexico.