Building on more than 30 years of studies and numerous reports released in the last decade calling for additional protections, NOAA’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is proposing to expand its boundaries to protect areas of national significance off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA is proposing to add 15 additional banks, ranging from 70 to 120 miles off-shore, that are comprised of approximately 383 square miles of reefs and bottom features that provide habitat for fish and other biological resources that serve as engines of sustainability for much of the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA is also proposing to extend the existing protections of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to these additional areas to limit the impact of bottom-disturbing activities on their sensitive biological resources and geological features.
Currently Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary protects only three among dozens of reefs and banks scattered along the edge of the continental shelf of the northern Gulf of Mexico.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) proposes expanding the network of protected areas within FGBNMS by incorporating additional nationally significant reefs and banks in the north central Gulf of Mexico. The proposed expansion alternatives would provide for more comprehensive management and protection of important habitat sites and cultural resources, and would provide opportunities for research and recovery of resources from observed impacts.
Expanding FGBNMS also supports several important aspects of Deepwater Horizon-related and wider Gulf of Mexico habitat restoration. In the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s “Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem Restoration Strategy,” the FGBNMS region is specifically mentioned as one of the critical areas that should be protected and managed as part of a network of ecologically significant offshore sites to enhance the Gulf’s overall biological productivity and resilience.
In the following video, shared with permission from Sir Patrick Pictures, Sanctuary Superintendent G.P. Schmahl explains the expansion proposal and the alternatives outlined below. (Video Length: 14:41)
Video transcript (162kb pdf)
The DEIS contains five alternatives that have been developed to meet the goals and objectives established by the Sanctuary Advisory Council and comments received during public scoping for sanctuary expansion. NOAA's preferred alternative is Alternative 3.
During development of the DEIS, sanctuary staff worked closely with constituents, particularly the oil and gas and fishing industries. Additionally, BOEM and BSEE participated in development of the DEIS as Cooperating Agencies.
For a full explanation of the proposal details, download the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Sanctuary Expansion and the associated Appendices:
A brief summary of the five alternatives is provided below:
No action alternative, which maintains the existing FGBNMS boundaries, which encompass ~56 square miles and include 3 distinct geologic features and biological communities at East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank and Stetson Bank. (Click on map for larger view)
~56 square miles
~281 square miles
Alternative 3 - Preferred Alternative
The preferred alternative, which is a modified version of the Advisory Council recommendation. This alternative takes into account new information gained since the Advisory Council recommendation was made, simplifying the recommended boundaries for ease of enforcement and consistency with existing regulatory regimes, and encompassing ~383 square miles. This alternative includes a total of 18 nationally significant natural features within 11 discrete proposed boundary areas. (Click on map for larger view)
Adds protection for high priority mesophotic and deep benthic resource areas across the north central Gulf of Mexico to the modified Advisory Council recommendation (Alternative 3), encompassing ~634 square miles. This alternative includes 43 nationally significant natural features (including 18 high priority mesophotic and deep benthic sites) within 29 discrete proposed boundary areas. Alternative 4 would require additional operational capacity beyond what is currently available for FGBNMS. (Click on map for larger view)
Alternative 3 - Preferred Alternative
~383 square miles
~634 square miles
More comprehensive management and protection of important and vulnerable mesophotic and deep benthic habitats, as well as important cultural and historic resource sites across the north central Gulf of Mexico, further expanding from the modified Advisory Council recommendation and encompassing ~935 square miles. This alternative includes 57 nationally significant natural features and 8 nationally significant cultural and historic resource sites within 45 discrete proposed boundary areas. Alternative 5 would also require additional operational capacity beyond what is currently available for the FGBNMS. (Click on map for larger view)
* = Shipwreck Site
~935 square miles
NOAA accepted public comments from June 2016 to August 2016 through Regulations.gov, mail, and in person during public hearings held in Galveston, TX, Houston, TX, New Orleans, LA, Lafayette, LA and Mobile, AL.
- A total of 8,491 comments were received during this period. Of those, 6,301 (74%) expressed support for expansion and 2,129 (25%) expressed opposition.
- Of the 6,301 comments in support of expansion, 4,579 expressed support for Alternative 5 (the most comprehensive alternative), 1,501 for Alternative 3 (Preferred Alternative) and only 9 for Alternative 2 (the 2007 SAC Alternative).
- Of the 6,301 comments in support of expansion, 5,953 were part of a petition and/or letter writing campaigns (Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network, Sea Turtle conservation group). Of the 2,129 comments in opposition, 2,023 were part of letter writing campaigns (American Petroleum Institute, Consumer Energy Alliance).
- Of the 421 comments received that were not part of organized petition or letter writing campaigns, 358 (85%) expressed support and 23 were opposed.
- Support letters were received from the following NGOs: Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network, The Ocean Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Texas Conservation Alliance, Marine Conservation Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, The Ocean Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy.
- Opposition to the proposal was expressed through a letter from a consortium of industry groups, including API (American Petroleum Institute), NOIA (National Ocean Industries Association), IPAA (Independent Petroleum Association of America), IADC (International Association of Drilling Contractors), IAGC (International Association of Geophysical Contractors) and OOC (Offshore Operators Committee). Additional opposition letters were received from the Consumer Energy Alliance, and the following oil and gas companies: Fieldwood Energy, Noble Energy, W&T Offshore, Shell Exploration and Production and Gulfslope Energy.
- Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance expressed conditional support of the expansion and supported a recommendation of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC).
For further information on the public comments received, please contact George.Schmahl@noaa.gov, Sanctuary Superintendent, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary or 409-621-5151, ext. 102.
Sanctuary Expansion Process
The process for Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary expansion was initiated following a recommendation from the Sanctuary Advisory Council's Boundary Expansion Working Group and has five basic steps:
NOAA published a Notice of Intent to consider possible expansion of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in February 2015 and asked the public for input on potential boundaries; resources to be protected; issues NOAA should consider; and any information that should be included in the resource analysis.
2. Proposed Expansion
In response to public scoping, NOAA prepared a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that analyzes a range of expansion alternatives and proposed regulations and boundaries.
3. Public Review
The public, agency partners and other stakeholders provided input on the DEIS during a 60-day public comment period. NOAA will consider all input and determine appropriate changes that address this input.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for expansion was presented to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) for conusltation on appropriate regulations for the preferred Alternative 3. The consultation resulted in a recommendation from GMFMC in November 2016.
5. ADVISORY COUNCIL REVIEW & RECOMMENDATION
The Advisory Council’s recommendation is 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 will evaluate the Advisory Council’s recommendation and revise the preferred alternative, as appropriate.
Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order 13795, NOAA will 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.
7. PROPOSED RULEMAKING
NOAA issues and takes public comment on a proposed rulemaking to implement the proposal prior to finalizing a decision. NOAA considers all input and determines appropriate changes that address this input.
8. Sanctuary Expansion
NOAA makes a final decision and prepares a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a final regulation package.
NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary System
The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The network includes a system of 13 national marine sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments.
Through the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, NOAA can identify, designate and protect areas of the marine and Great Lakes environment that have special national significance.