Proposed Rule for Sanctuary Expansion

Building on more than 30 years of scientific studies, NOAA is issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking to expand Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. The proposal would expand the sanctuary from 56 square miles to 160 square miles to protect additional critical habitat in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

The existing Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1992 and added to in 1996. It includes the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States, deepwater reef communities, and other essential habitats for a variety of marine species.

The proposed rule for expansion would add 14 additional reefs and banks to the sanctuary. These reefs provide important habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish, as well as threatened or endangered species of manta rays, sea turtles, and corals.

This proposed rule would extend existing sanctuary protections to these new areas to limit the destructive impact of activities related to fishing with bottom-tending gear, ship anchoring, oil and gas exploration and production, and salvage activities on sensitive biological resources.

But, sanctuary expansion is more than just regulations and lines on a map. Hear the story from the voices of our past, present, and future:

COMMENTS REQUESTED

NOAA is inviting the public to provide input on any aspect of the notice of proposed rulemaking during a public comment period ending on July 3, 2020. The agency is also requesting specific input on changes to the proposed boundaries, as well as on the NOAA Fisheries and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council requests for spearfishing and pelagic longlining exemptions within the expansion areas (not the existing sanctuary areas).

There are three ways to submit comments on this proposed rule:

Online

Comments may be submitted online via www.regulations.gov using docket number NOAA-NOS-2019-033.

Public Meetings

The sanctuary will host three virtual public meetings for the public to learn more about the proposal and submit comments. All meetings are in Central Time.

Monday, June 8, 2020
1-3 p.m.

Register in advance

  • After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

  • If you are unable to participate online, you can connect to the meeting by phone using (213) 929-4232 and the attendee access code 704-409-034

Monday, June 8, 2020
6-8 p.m.

Register in advance

  • After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

  • If you are unable to participate online, you can connect to the meeting by phone using (213) 929-4232 and the attendee access code 682-728-246

Thursday, June 11, 2020
6-8 p.m.
Register in advance

  • After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

  • If you are unable to participate online, you can connect to the meeting by phone using (415) 655-0052 and the attendee access code 486-551-096

IMPORTANT: If you would like to provide comment during a meeting, please sign up beforehand.

  • Select “yes” during the online registration. The line-up of speakers will be based on the date and time of registration.

  • If you will be participating by phone, please send an email to fgbexpansion@noaa.gov to add your name to the speaker list.

Mail

Please mail written comments to:

George P. Schmahl, Sanctuary Superintendent
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
4700 Avenue U, Bldg 216
Galveston, TX 77551

Deadline for Comments: Friday, July 3, 2020
(Comments sent by mail must be postmarked by this date.)

WHAT HAS CHANGED SINCE THE 2016 DEIS?

On June 20, 2016, NOAA released a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) including a set of alternatives that would implement potential changes to the sanctuary. The preferred alternative from the DEIS would have added 15 banks to the sanctuary (for a total of 18 banks) and resulted in an increase of the sanctuary area from 56 square miles to approximately 383 square miles.

After a lengthy process and significant input from primary constituents, the Sanctuary Advisory Council developed a revised recommendation. This, along with public comments, industry input, and interagency consultations (with NOAA Fisheries, Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the U.S. Coastguard, and the U.S. Navy), resulted in what is now NOAA's revised preferred alternative for sanctuary expansion. The notice of proposed rulemaking is based upon this revised preferred alternative. It will add 14 banks (for a total of 17 banks) and increase the sanctuary size to approximately 160 square miles.

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. As a result, many of the proposed boundaries are closely aligned to already existing No Activity Zones established by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency that regulates oil and gas exploration and production activities.

Size Comparison of Proposed Expansion Areas
Proposed Expansion Areas 2016 DEIS Preferred Alternative (sq. miles) 2020 Revised Preferred Alternative (sq. miles)
East Flower Garden/West Flower Garden/Horseshoe Banks 147.4 (multi-bank complex)  93.7 (East 27.8, West 37.2, Horseshoe 28.7)
Bouma/Bryant/Rezak/Sidner Banks  53.6 (multi-bank complex)  13.4 (Bouma 7.7, Rezak 3.7, Sidner 2.0)
Rankin/28 Fathom/Bright Banks  82.9 (multi-bank complex)  13.3 (Rankin/28 Fathom 5.6, Bright 7.7)
Alderdice Bank   8.0   5.0
Elvers Bank  20.1   4.6
Geyer Bank  15.3  11.5
MacNeil Bank   8.3   2.7
McGrail Bank  12.0   4.7
Parker Bank  27.7   7.0
Sonnier Bank   5.6   3.1
Stetson Bank   2.3   1.4
TOTAL 383.2 160.4

REVISED PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE

During development of the proposed rule, sanctuary staff worked closely with constituents, particularly those within the oil and gas and fishing industries. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) participated as a cooperating agency.

Below are a series of maps showing boundary comparisons between the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative and the 2020 revised preferred alternative specified in the notice of proposed rule.

Map showing boundaries for the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative in purple along with the newer boundaries for the revised preferred alternative in white
The map here shows all of the boundaries for the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative in purple. Boundaries for the 2020 revised preferred alternative specified in the notice of proposed rule are shown in white. Image: NOAA
Map showing boundaries for the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative in purple, boundaries for the 2020 revised preferred alternative in white, and the existing sanctuary shaded in pink, for the western portion of the expansion area
The map here shows the western portion of the expansion area where the existing sanctuary is located. The boundaries for the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative are in purple. The boundaries of the 2020 revised preferred alternative are in white. The existing sanctuary is shaded in pink. Image: NOAA
Map showing boundaries for the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative in purple, and the boundaries for the revised preferred alternative in white, in the central portion of the expansion area
The map here shows the central portion of the expansion area. The boundaries for the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative are in purple. The boundaries of the 2020 revised preferred alternative are in white. Image: NOAA
Map showing boundaries for the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative in purple and the boundaries for the 2020 revised preferred alternative in white, in the eastern portion of the expansion area
The map here shows the eastern portion of the expansion area. The boundaries for the 2016 DEIS preferred alternative are in purple. The boundaries of the 2020 revised preferred alternative are in white. Image: NOAA

Sanctuary Expansion Process

The process for Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary expansion was initiated following a 2007 recommendation from the Sanctuary Advisory Council and has these basic steps:

checkmark1. SCOPING

NOAA published a notice of intent to consider possible expansion of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in February 2015. NOAA 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.

checkmark2. PROPOSED EXPANSION

In response to public scoping, NOAA prepared a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), released in June 2016, that analyzed a range of expansion alternatives and proposed regulations and boundaries.

checkmark3. PUBLIC REVIEW

The public, agency partners and other stakeholders provided input on the DEIS during a 60-day public comment period. NOAA considered all input and determined appropriate changes to address this input.

blue checkmark4. CONSULTATION

The draft environmental impact statement for expansion was presented to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council for consultation on appropriate regulations for the preferred Alternative 3. The consultation resulted in a recommendation from the Gulf Council in November 2016.

blue checkmark5. ADVISORY COUNCIL REVIEW & RECOMMENDATION

The 2018 Sanctuary Advisory Council recommendation resulted from 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 evaluated the advisory council’s recommendation and revised the preferred alternative.

blue checkmark6. CONSULTATIONS

Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order 13795, NOAA requested 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 also continued to coordinate with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council regarding fishing regulations in the proposed expansion areas. Additional consultations took place with NOAA Fisheries, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the U.S. Coastguard, and the U.S. Navy.

green arrow pointing to the right7. 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 600,000 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 14 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.

Naiton Marine Sanctuary System map