Huge Expansion Proposed for Gulf of Mexico Sanctuary

The body of a dead animal believed to be a vaquita floats in the ocean after being found in an illegal totoaba net recovered last year in the Gulf of California off of Mexico. (Sea Shepherd via AP)

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — Within the crystal blue waters in the remote Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana are dense schools of fish, whale sharks and vast mountains of salt and coral on the sea bottom.

A federal proposal to expand the existing sanctuary by almost triple — from the current 56 miles to the proposed 160 square miles, including 14 additional reefs — was released Friday, beginning a three-month period of public comment. The rule had been more than three decades in the making, and if few objections are raised, the expansion will likely go into effect.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that oversees the sanctuary had in 2016 favored a proposal to extend the existing sanctuary to 383 square miles. The rule released Friday, said NOAA, received thousands of public comments in favor of an even greater expansion than that.

But pushback from certain industries, including oil and gas and commercial fishers, combined with a 2017 rule released under the Trump administration, the “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” limits the expansion of any national marine sanctuary unless the proposal includes a full accounting of the mineral potential from the Department of the Interior, and this helped inform the current proposal.

“Basically, the proposal [released Friday] is for the same areas that were proposed in 2016, but the boundaries have been reduced to minimize conflict” with entities that are opposed to expanding the area, Sanctuary Superintendent G.P. Schmahl, said Friday.

“This [proposal] is an incredibly important step for the protection of these special areas in the Gulf of Mexico,” Schmahl said.

Schmahl said he wanted to emphasize how special the sanctuary is and also how incredibly important the 14 reefs included in Friday’s proposal are to the vitality of the marine ecosystem. The previous preferred proposal from 2016 included 15 reefs.

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

“We felt, and we still feel, that we could manage that large area that was put forward in 2016,” Schmahl said of the preferred proposal for 383 square miles, but he said that NOAA also tried to “strike a balance between environmental protection and, also, economic uses, which are extremely important.”

Schmahl said the agency arrived at its proposal by emphasizing the protection of certain specific areas while also simply scaling back.

“You have these features that rise up from the sea floor like underwater mountains, and as we drew in the boundaries and made them smaller, we concentrated on those peaks,” Schmahl said of the method used in creating the proposed boundary.

The Gulf of Mexico is among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth. It also faces enormous challenges from pollution, oil and gas infrastructure and development and overfishing.

Schmahl said the proposal released was “designed not to unduly restrict oil and gas development,” meanwhile supporting commercial fishing as well as a healthy ecosystem.

“With coral ecosystems under threat worldwide from a variety of impacts, we need additional protection for these important ecosystems, Schmahl said in a press release issued Friday. “The addition of new reefs and banks in the sanctuary will help increase the resilience of marine ecosystems that provide essential services for the Gulf of Mexico region and help support local economies.”

We’re at a point now,” Schmahl said in an interview, “when we’re putting this out for public comment and unless there is a lot of opposition for this proposal, we anticipate it going forward.”

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