Frequently Asked Questions about Sanctuary Expansion

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about the current Proposed Rule for Sanctuary Expansion. 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.

Please visit our Proposed Rule for Sanctuary Expansion page for specific information on submitting public comments and attending public meetings, as well as links to supporting information and documents.

The habitats within the proposed expansion area are 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 are in place in many of the proposed expansion sites, there are some gaps in these protections. The proposed 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.

The publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register marks the beginning of a public comment period. In addition, three virtual public meetings will take place to provide an overview of the proposed rule and gather input from the public. Following the public comment period, relevant consultations and public comments will inform the development of the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) and the final rulemaking.

While the public is invited to provide comments on any aspect of the proposed rule, input is specifically requested regarding: 1) the configuration of the revised alternative boundaries; 2) an exemption to proposed regulations to allow for the possession and use of spearfishing gear; and 3) an exemption to proposed regulations to allow for the possession and use of pelagic longline gear. Details regarding the submission of comments and the public meetings are available on our Proposed Rule for Sanctuary Expansion page.

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 proposed expansion areas. Other types of fishing gear (including shrimp trawls, longlines and spearguns) are prohibited.

The prohibition on shrimp trawls would have minimal effect on fishing interests 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 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 is using 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 will consider the public comments, and incorporate the determination on fishing in the final environmental impact statement and final rulemaking.

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 revised preferred alternative 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 proposal 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.

While the DEIS analyzed a set of alternatives for expansion of FGBNMS, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) provides a step toward implementing the actions put forth in the DEIS. The DEIS preferred alternative was modified after considering interagency consultations, public comments, and recommendations from the Sanctuary Advisory Council. With the NPRM, NOAA proposes to expand FGBNMS based on the revised preferred alternative. This will increase the current sanctuary area from approximately 56 square miles to approximately 160 square miles.

Based on public comments, interagency consultations, and coordination with the Sanctuary Advisory Council, NOAA has 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) is a cooperating agency in the proposed 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.

NOAA will evaluate public comment on the proposed rule. This will lead to the preparation and release of a final environmental impact statement (FEIS), including a response to public comments, with a final rule, if appropriate.