A national marine sanctuary located about a hundred miles off the coast of Galveston is looking to expand its protection of coral reef habitats in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is currently made up of three coral reef systems – deemed some of the healthiest during a time when many reefs around the world have been seriously damaged or are under threat.
The sanctuary’s expansion has been in the works for several years, and is currently being discussed in a workgroup made up of gulf coast scientists and representatives of the fishing and oil and gas industries.
G.P. Schmahl is the Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary’s superintendent. Schmahl has managed this sanctuary since 1999. He has over 25 years’ experience managing marine-life habitats and coral reef sanctuaries.
“Some of the healthiest coral reefs in the entire western Atlantic and Caribbean region occur right off the coast of Texas,” says Schmahl. “In recent years there has been increasing public support to expand that national Marine Sanctuary] protection to adjacent coral communities.”
Schmahl described the current sanctuary and its expansion plan, “The current sanctuary including three banks of coral reefs [encompasses] about 56 square miles. The preferred proposal expands to “15 additional banks, for a total area of 383 square miles.” While it may sound huge, Schmahl says that this is actually a “very tiny proportion of the area [in the Gulf of Mexico] that is out there for fishing and for development.”
“A national marine sanctuary is actually a multiple-use protected area,” says Schmahl. “The primary focus of a marine sanctuary is conservation and protection of the biological communities that occur there. But other uses are allowed as long as the primary purpose [is] maintained.” Thus, “hook and line fishing is allowed…” and “people are encouraged to visit the sanctuary…. Scuba diving is certainly allowed and the Flower Garden Banks is a prime scuba diving destination.”
About industry, Schmahl says, “Our research shows that oil and gas exploration, as long as it’s done in an environmentally-sensitive way, can occur next to these [fragile] marine communities. So, our regulations in the sanctuary do allow for certain types of oil and gas exploration in the sanctuary, as long as it doesn’t harm the coral and marine life communities.”
About marine life, Schmahl says, “In Flower Banks we find various species of sea turtles, …sharks and in particular, manta rays. East and West Flower Banks are one of the only places it has been documented that baby manta rays are seen quite often. So, “….manta rays must be giving birth close by and these small manta rays use [the Banks] quite extensively early in their life history.”
Written by Christopher De Los Santos.