Frequently Asked Questions about Sanctuary Expansion
Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about the sanctuary expansion process. Click on any question to display the answer. If, after reading these responses, you still have questions, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The habitats within the proposed expansion area were vulnerable to a variety of known and potential impacts, including large vessel anchoring, marine salvage operations, inappropriate fishing techniques, and certain oil and gas activities. While some federal protections were already in place in many of the proposed expansion sites, there were some gaps in these protections. The sanctuary expansion provides a more comprehensive umbrella of protection under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA).
The protection of these ecologically significant sites will increase the resilience of marine ecosystems, and enhance the sustainability of the region's thriving recreation, tourism, and commercial economies. Ultimately, expanding FGBNMS will help to ensure that valuable marine resources remain available for the use and enjoyment of future generations of Americans.
The management of the expanded sanctuary will rely on existing staff and programs and will continue to be funded under existing resources. NOAA will continue to evaluate future resource needs of all sanctuaries in its formulation of annual budget requests. 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.
There were several steps in the sanctuary expansion process that allowed for public input. These included the publication of the Notice of Intent (NOI) for Sanctuary Expansion in 2015, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in 2016, and the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in 2020. The publication of each of these documents was followed by a public comment period and several public meetings. Comments were accepted through Regulations.gov, by mail, and in person during the public meetings.
Yes, all existing regulations will apply to the new expansion areas.
Existing FGBNMS regulations allow commercial and recreational fishing by conventional hook and line fishing gear only. This is the predominant type of fishing that occurs in the new expansion areas. Other types of fishing gear (including shrimp trawls, longlines and spearguns) are prohibited.
The prohibition on shrimp trawls should have minimal effect on fishing interests because shrimpers avoid high profile hard bottom features, such as those included in the expansion areas. However, the prohibition on longlines and spearfishing may cause concern to some members of the fishing community.
FGBNMS consulted with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council on fishing regulations under the requirements of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. NOAA also used the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to solicit public comments regarding the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries requests for longlining and spearfishing exemptions within the expansion sites. NOAA ultimately rejected both fishery exemptions based on public input and the fact that these fishing practices are not aligned with the FGBNMS mission to protect vulnerable ecological resources.
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, after designation, EPA discharge regulations may apply in the new expansion areas.
The final preferred alternative for sanctuary expansion meets the intent of Presidential Executive Order 13795 (Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy) while providing substantial protection to key sensitive marine habitats of national significance and meeting the expansion objectives as identified in the 2016 Draft Environmental Impact Statement preferred alternative.
This expansion is directly responsive to recommendations contained in the “Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Final Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan” (February 2016) and the Final Open Ocean Restoration Plan for “Mesophotic and Deep Benthic Communities” (November 2019) developed through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process. The Flower Garden Banks region 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.
Why is the sanctuary expansion area smaller than the preferred alternative in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)?
Based on public comments, interagency consultations, and coordination with the Sanctuary Advisory Council, NOAA reduced the size of the expansion areas proposed in the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative to minimize user conflicts and potential economic impacts to the offshore energy industry and certain commercial fishing interests.
NOAA anticipates that the economic impact to recreational spearfishing and commercial fishing using bottom-tending gear, nets, longlines, and trawls would be negligible. In the portions of the Gulf of Mexico covered by the Leeworthy et al. (2016) study, which analyzed the scale and distribution of fishing and other economic impacts in the 2016 DEIS, the data showed that use of bottom-tending gear, nets, trawls and spearguns occurred with very low intensity, especially around the banks in the proposed expansion area.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was a cooperating agency in the sanctuary expansion process. BOEM’s analysis of the revised preferred alternative, pursuant to E.O. 13795, stated that areas within the proposed expansion boundaries contain approximately 110 thousand barrels of oil equivalent reserves, which represent approximately 0.002% of known oil and gas reserves in the outer continental shelf (OCS) of the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM’s analysis further supports NOAA's assessment that the proposed expansion would not have a significant negative economic impact on OCS oil and gas development.