A federal marine sanctuary protecting coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico could grow five times in size under a plan being proposed to safeguard an even larger area of the Gulf from scavengers looking for historic shipwrecks, ships dropping anchor, commercial fishing and oil and gas drilling.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to enlarge the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary from 56 square miles to cover 280 square miles.
The sanctuary, first established in 1992, includes the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States. A series of reefs, sitting atop salt dome sea mounts, are found along the rim of the Continental Shelf between about 70 miles and 150 miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
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"That's essentially where the activity is happening," said G.P. Schmahl, the sanctuary superintendent. "They are hot spots for fish habitat, fish spawning."
The banks host many species, including brightly colored sponges, eels, urchins, shrimp, lobsters and shellfish, eagle and manta rays, sea turtles and whale sharks.
The agency is holding public meetings on the proposal in March in New Orleans, Houston and Galveston, Texas. The agency will collect public comments until April 6. There are several more steps to complete -- including an environmental review -- before the expansion can happen.
The new banks under consideration for protection include the Horseshoe Bank, the MacNeil Bank, the Rankin Bank, the 28 Fathom Bank, the Bright Bank, the Geyer Bank, the McGrail Bank, the Sonnier Bank and the Alderdice Bank. The sanctuary was established in 1992 and a neighboring area, the Stetson Bank, was added to the sanctuary in 1996.
Adding these banks to the sanctuary would help protect them from a number of harmful activities, Schmahl said.
The reefs are under threat from human activities such as commercial fishing, oil and gas drilling, ships dropping anchors on them, oil spills and scavengers looking for shipwrecks. Besides that, hurricanes, invasive species and climate change have been cited as harmful to the reefs.
Being placed inside the boundaries of the sanctuary would protect the banks from harmful human activities, Schmahl said.
Expansion of the sanctuary's boundaries was proposed by an advisory council in 2007. The council includes public official and stakeholder groups, including representatives for the oil and gas industry, fishermen and divers. The sanctuary is popular among divers and fishermen for their abundance of sea life.
Larry McKinney, a sanctuary advisory council member and the executive director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said a lot of research went into deciding which banks should be included. He added that the oil and gas industry was "on board" with the expansion proposal.
Schmahl said reserves within sanctuary boundaries can be tapped into by companies using directional drilling techniques. He said scientists believe that directional drilling into the deep sea surface does not cause harm to the reefs. Directional drilling involves digging a well at a slant, often from great distances away, avoiding in this case drilling vertically into the reefs.