Building on more than 30 years of scientific studies, NOAA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on May 1, 2020 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:
NOAA invited the public to provide input on any aspect of the notice of proposed rulemaking during a public comment period from May 1 through July 3, 2020. The agency also requested specific input on the following three items:
Changes to the Proposed Boundaries in the Revised Preferred Alternative
Based on the Sanctuary Advisory Council recommendations in response to the DEIS, NOAA has made a number of changes to the boundaries of the polygons surrounding the banks and submerged features. NOAA is soliciting public comment on the revised boundaries.
Pelagic Longline Exemption Request
Existing protections for FGBNMS include a prohibition on the possession and use of fishing gear with the exception of conventional hook and line gear. Pelagic longline gear is used to target yellowfin tuna and swordfish in the Gulf of Mexico, including in the proposed sanctuary expansion areas. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division, has submitted a request for an exemption for pelagic longline gear to be added to the current exemption for conventional hook and line gear in the sanctuary. NOAA is soliciting public input on this request.
Spearfishing Exemption Request
Existing protections for FGBNMS include a prohibition on the possession and use of spearfishing equipment. During the public comment period for the DEIS, NOAA received several requests for an exemption to this prohibition for new expansion areas. Additionally, the Sanctuary Advisory Council's 2018 recommendation for sanctuary expansion also included a recommendation to allow free-diving spearfishing at all new banks, but not within the 3 banks of the existing sanctuary. Additionally, the SAC requested an exemption for the possession of spearguns (stowed and not available for immediate use) on board a vessel within the boundaries of the current FGBNMS, but the vessel may not be in possession of any reef fish species (with the exception of bait fish). Finally, the GMFMC also recommended that NOAA consider an exemption for the possession and use of spearfishing equipment in the sanctuary. NOAA is soliciting public input on this request.
There were three ways to submit comments on this proposed rule:
Comments were submitted online via www.regulations.gov using docket number NOAA-NOS-2019-0033. Although the public comment period has closed, all of the submitted comments may still be viewed at this link.
The sanctuary hosted 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
Monday, June 8, 2020
Thursday, June 11, 2020
- Public comments were limited to three (3) minutes per person.
- The line-up of speakers was based on the date and time of registration.
- Participants who could not get their audio to work during the meetings were instructed to email their comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and their comments were read out loud by one of the webinar organizers.
Written comments, postmarked by July 3, 2020, were mailed to:
George P. Schmahl, Sanctuary Superintendent
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
4700 Avenue U, Bldg 216
Galveston, TX 77551
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.
|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)|
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.
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:
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
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.
5. 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.
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.
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.
NOAA issues and takes public comment on a Regulatory Impact Review (RIR) of the proposed expansion of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. The RIR was added as a supporting document to the proposed rule for the expansion of the sanctuary.
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.