SILVER SPRING, Maryland – The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced a proposal to expand the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to protect additional critical Gulf of Mexico habitat.
The organization said that the proposal builds on more than 30 years of scientific studies, including numerous reports released in the last decade and in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.
The plan lays out five expansion scenarios, ranging from no expansion of the 56 sq mi (145 sq km) sanctuary to one bringing it to a total of 935 sq mi (2,421 sq km). NOAA said that its preferred scenario sees the sanctuary expanding to 383 sq mi (991 sq km) to include 15 reefs and banks that provide habitat for what it described as “recreationally and commercially important fish, as well as a home to 15 threatened or endangered species of whales, sea turtles, and corals.”
John Armor, acting director, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said: “These habitats are the engines of sustainability for much of the Gulf of Mexico and are critical to fish such as red snapper, mackerel, grouper, and wahoo, as well as other protected species.
“The proposed expansion also advances NOAA’s mission to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources that help sustain local communities and America's economy.”
The public is invited to comment on the agency’s proposal through Aug. 19, 2016. Those comments will be used to develop a final environmental impact statement, which will then be available for public review. After reviewing the comments from the public, NOAA would then make a decision on the proposed expansion.
A description of the expansion scenarios, including boundaries and resources the areas contain, can be found at http://flowergarden.noaa.gov/management/expansiondeis.html.
Located 115 mi (185 km) off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, NOAA designated the East and West Flower Garden Banks as Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 1992. In 1996, Stetson Bank, located 70 mi (112 km) off the Texas coast, was added to the sanctuary through Congressional action. The three banks, encompassing 56 sq mi, include the northernmost coral reefs in the continental US, deepwater reef communities and other essential habitats for a variety of marine species.
Expansion of the sanctuary emerged as one of the top priority issues during a review of the sanctuary’s management plan in 2012. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion also accelerated interest in expansion, NOAA said, with government scientists and non-governmental organizations urging additional protections for marine life and GoM habitat.
Five meetings are planned in July for the public to learn more about the proposal and submit comments. Meetings are scheduled for Galveston and Houston, in Texas; New Orleans and Lafayette, in Louisiana; and Mobile, Alabama.