Frequently Asked Questions about Sanctuary Expansion

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about the current sanctuary expansion proposal. Click on any question to display the answer. If, after reading these responses, you still have questions, please feel free to contact us at fgbexpansion@noaa.gov

In 2006, in accordance with the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, NOAA initiated a public process to review the FGBNMS management plan. During the management plan review the topic of expanding the boundaries emerged as a priority issue. The revised management plan, published in 2012, includes a Sanctuary Expansion Action Plan which identifies a specific recommendation by the Sanctuary Advisory Council. In response to this recommendation, NOAA is pursuing possible expansion of the sanctuary.

The management of an expanded site will rely on the existing staff and programs and will continue to be funded under existing resources. This is part of the reasoning behind the selection of the preferred alternative, Alternative 3. In addition, we will work to strengthen community partnerships for education, outreach, research, resource protection and enforcement. We will also partner with local, state and other federal agencies to leverage resources and implement programs.

The process for considering the expansion of FGBNMS is composed of four primary stages:

1. Information collection and characterization, including the consideration of public comment. FGBNMS completed this action through the release of a Notice of Intent in February 2015.

2. Preparation and release of a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) that identifies boundary expansion alternatives. The official release of this document was announced on June 7, 2016. Regulations will be proposed after consultations with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and other agencies are completed.

3. Public review and comments on the DEIS. The public comment period ran June 10-August 19, 2016.

4. Preparation and release of a proposed rule. This will include the recommended boundaries for each bank as well as the regulations that will affect those areas.

5. Preparation and release of a final environmental impact statement, including a response to public comments, then the final rule (regulations).

A public comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ran June 10, 2016 through August 19, 2016.

In addition, public meetings were held in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama to gather input on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

The outcome of consultations with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and other agencies, as well as public comments on the DEIS will inform the development of proposed regulations for FGBNMS and the release of a Proposed Rule. Another public comment period will follow the release of the proposed rule.

In the proposal put forth in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), FGBNMS would apply existing sanctuary regulations to the new geographic areas. However, the outcome of consultations with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and other agencies, as well as public comments on the DEIS will inform the development of proposed regulations for FGBNMS, which will then be made available for public comment.

Existing FGBNMS regulations allow commercial and recreational fishing by hook and line only. This is the predominant type of fishing that occurs in the proposed expansion areas. Other types of fishing gear (including shrimp trawls, long lines and spearguns) are prohibited.

The prohibition on shrimp trawls is likely to have a minimal effect because shrimpers avoid high profile hard bottom features, such as those included in the preferred alternative. However, the prohibition on longlines and spearfishing may cause concern by these segments of the fishing community. FGBNMS will consult with the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council on fishing regulations under the requirements of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

Existing FGBNMS regulations allow oil and gas development within the sanctuary outside of BOEM designated “No Activity Zones” as long as no injury to coral or other bottom formations can be demonstrated. However, enlarging the sanctuary’s existing boundaries would add the application of EPA discharge regulations to the new areas.

This proposal is directly responsive to recommendations contained in the “Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem Restoration Strategy” (December 2011) developed by the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. Flower Garden Banks is specifically mentioned as one of those 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.

Specific information about the reefs and banks identified in all of the expansion alternatives is available in the DEIS: Sanctuary Expansion, Volume II, Appendices, specifically in Appendix B: Site Profiles of Natural Features Included in Alternatives. Additional information on just the reefs and banks identified in Alternative 3 is provided in an Expansion Site Summary document and from the Northwestern Gulf Banks page of the FGBNMS website.