Feds Expand Marine Sanctuary Off Louisiana and Texas Coasts

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it is tripling the size of the Gulf of Mexico’s only marine sanctuary, home to some of the healthiest coral reefs in North America.

Colorful sponges and bright green algae adorn the cap of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary’s Bright Bank, which is shallow enough to scuba dive. (NOAA)

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — The remote Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, the only sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico’s diverse waters, has tripled in size under a final rule signed Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Within the sanctuary’s crystal blue waters swim dense schools of fish, whale sharks, sea turtles and threatened and protected species of manta rays, as well as vast mountains of salt and coral along the sea bottom.

The Gulf of Mexico is among the most diverse habitats in the world and the sanctuary’s expansion – from 56 to 160 square miles – will support the health of significant marine features, including some of the healthiest coral reefs in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic.

In 2016, the NOAA, who oversees the sanctuary, favored a plan to extend it to 383 miles, bolstered by thousands of public comments in favor of an even larger expansion. But industries such as commercial fishing and oil and gas pushed back, and the Trump administration in 2017 limited expansion any national marine sanctuary unless the proposal includes a full accounting of the mineral potential from the Department of the Interior, which helped to shape the current rule.

Despite the smaller expansion, enthusiasm is still high among marine scientists and conservationists.

“This expansion represents another milestone in protecting crucial habitat and vital part of our planet’s life support system,” Keith Sanford, president and CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium, said in a press release Tuesday.

The expansion is a “triumph for coral conservation,” said Jesse Gilbert, senior vice president and CEO of Texas State Aquarium. “Our aquarists will continue their work to preserve the genetic diversity of the reef to help further restoration efforts. In support of our mission, we will continue to educate and inspire the appreciation for our seas and support conservation.”

The expansion has been three decades in the making and was the subject of much public comment and review over the last 14 years.

“We’re excited,” Sanctuary Superintendent G.P. Schmahl said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We’ve been working diligently since May and think this is quite an accomplishment.”

Schmahl acknowledge that many people who commented during the NOAA’s review process were disappointed the expansion was not greater than the one announced Tuesday, but he said the agency focuses on being fair and transparent.

“As an agency, we try to balance things,” Schmahl said, adding that the focus is on conservation without significantly impacting sectors with strong economic interests in the area.

Underscoring the overall success of the expansion, Schmahl said the areas within the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary are those that were recognized early on as being very important to fish species because they provide critical spawning habitat.

Schmahl said the coral reefs in the sanctuary are some of the healthiest in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic because of their remote location.

Reefs are essential to the health of marine ecosystems because of their many roles, including providing shelter and nutrients to diverse sea creatures, supporting the food chain and nutrient recycling. They also provide fish habitat in which to spawn.

“Coral reefs worldwide are in trouble,” Schmahl said. “The reefs in Flower Garden Banks are in quite good health when you compare them with other reefs throughout the Caribbean and Western Atlantic.”

Asked what in particular has kept the reefs so healthy, Schmahl said it’s all “location, location, location.” Being far offshore, they are not affected as much by coastal runoff, for instance, Schmahl said. It’s also harder for people to get there.

Schmahl said the water in the sanctuary is a very clean Caribbean blue and is fed by the loop current from the Gulf Stream. The reef is “bathed by this clean, clear water constantly,” he said, meaning temperature fluctuations in the Gulf are not as much an issue as they are for reefs in other locations.

Rising sea water is another factor affecting coral reefs around the world, and that impact remains to be seen in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

“The news is good right now,” Schmahl said, “but the future is iffy.”

In an interview last May, Schmahl emphasized how special the sanctuary is and how incredibly important the 14 reefs included in the expansion are to the vitality of the marine ecosystem. The previous preferred proposal from 2016 included 15 reefs.

“This has been a very public and transparent process throughout,” Schmahl said Tuesday.  

“I believe we have been sensitive to people’s input and concern. There are people who wish it was larger,” he added. “Still, I think it’s important. It’s certainly a good step.”

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