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Possible Sanctuary Expansion at Flower Garden Banks

NOAA is developing a proposal to expand protection at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, and they need diver input.

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) is a hidden gem. It’s a little bit of the Caribbean about 115 miles (185 km) off the Texas/Louisiana coastline. This semi-tropical oasis contains some of the healthiest coral reefs in the entire tropical western Atlantic. It’s also a great dive destination. NOAA is currently developing a proposal to expand protection there, and they need your input.

If you haven’t been diving at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, now’s the time to book a trip. The reefs at East and West Flower Garden Banks feature plentiful coral cover. Living hard corals, with some colonies as big as small cars, cover over 50 percent of the reef cap. As the reefs get deeper, some sections feature as much as 70 percent coral cover.

If it’s megafauna you crave, you’ll likely see grouper, jacks, sharks, sea turtles and manta rays. In fact, researchers have identified this area as a manta-ray nursery, with many juvenile mantas spotted over the years. And, although there’s no guarantee with nature, there’s rarely a trip without some kind of sighting. Whale sharks are also a possibility in the summer months.

And finally, if you’re seeking tropical reef fish, there are enormous angelfish, tons of parrotfish, damsels, and wrasses about, as well as a few unique species like the golden smooth trunkfish. Rather than the usual black with white spots, these cute fish are bright yellow with white spots.

In the beginning

So, how did this special place join the National Marine Sanctuary System? It started with concerned divers back in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1970s, most of the divers were researchers. This underwater coral garden in the northern Gulf of Mexico, where no one expected corals to live, fascinated them. They began discussing the need to protect the banks from increasing human activities.

Soon, recreational divers started visiting the area as well. They also saw the need for protection of this unique dive destination, and in 1979, members of the Houston Underwater Club submitted a formal letter of nomination under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act of 1972. It wasn’t an easy road, but on January 17, 1992 President George H. Bush signed the designation papers making the Flower Garden Banks our 10th national marine sanctuary. Stetson Bank joined the sanctuary in 1996.

Studies continue

Today, FGBNMS covers 56 square miles of ocean bottom. Beautiful coral reefs that are accessible to recreational divers cover about one percent of the sanctuary. The other 99 percent is a combination of deep reefs, algal nodule fields, and silty mud bottom.

Deep areas are also full of life. Black corals, gorgonians, sponges, anemones, algae, and fish all use these lesser-known habitats. These mesophotic reefs may not be as well known, but they are equally vital to the health of the Gulf and worthy of protection.

And, there’s more of that all of over the northern Gulf of Mexico — other reefs and banks, shallow and deep, with amazing wildlife. Our three small banks don’t exist in isolation. They are actually part of a much bigger network that seems to connect with and support FGBNMS.

New Diving Horizons

flower garden banks
Alternative 3 was the preferred alternative in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary expansion. The next step is a Proposed Rule, which we hope to release later in 2019.

This brings us to the next chapter in sanctuary history – sanctuary expansion. In 2012, the sanctuary published an updated management plan that included an action plan for sanctuary expansion. In 2016, FGBNMS released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) with five possible scenarios for expansion. “Alternative 3,” the preferred option, recommended adding 15 reefs and banks to the sanctuary, bringing the total size to 383 square miles.

Some of these recommended areas are within recreational-dive depths, so if they become part of the sanctuary, they will likely also become dive destinations. As with existing sanctuary areas, FGBNMS would install mooring buoys to protect from anchoring and make these areas more accessible to boaters.

Next steps for Flower Garden Banks

At several points in the sanctuary-expansion process there have been opportunities for public comment. Each time, scientists have analyzed the information and used it to guide the succeeding decisions. Now, based on the latest input, the sanctuary is in the final stages of putting together the document that will set the boundaries and regulations for a newly-expanded sanctuary. This too will be subject to a public comment period.

When that happens, the sanctuary needs your input. The recreational-dive community was an important constituency in putting forth and seeing through the original sanctuary designation. We’d like divers to continue to be involved in the sanctuary-expansion process.

Ocean protection and recreational opportunities go hand-in-hand in your national marine sanctuaries. To learn more about the proposed expansion and to stay in touch with Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, visit the website here, follow on Facebook or Twitter, or join an email list for updates.

Guest post by Kelly Drinnen, education & outreach specialist, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary