To Expand, or Not to Expand

There's a big national resource out in the Gulf of Mexico, one that you've probably never heard of. It's the "Flower Garden Banks," a marine sanctuary, which is what they call national parks that happen to be under water. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel explains that federal officials are thinking about expanding the size of the sanctuary. And for those who know about it, that has made the banks a bit of a battleground.

rock hind grouper

Under the sea, 90 miles off the Texas coast, is a wildlife sanctuary teeming with sharks, sting rays, and turtles.

Diving down, you may hear the low grunts of the rock hind. [Sound of rock hind]

Or the crackle of snapping shrimp. [Sound of shrimp]

The creatures are drawn to rocky underwater banks that rise from the ocean floor toward the sunlight — close enough for coral to grow on them and thrive.

“It’s a fact that it is the northernmost reef in the Gulf and it’s the only reef of its kind that we have in Texas.”

That’s Robert Palmer of Rosenberg.

He says a fishing trip to the Flower Garden Banks is a real commitment. It takes six hours by boat and costs hundreds of dollars in fuel. But it’s worth it.

“It’s pretty pristine out there, there’s not a lot of really torn-up corals and stuff from people pawing around on them. Like you would go to Cozumel where there’s just thousands of people. It’s a really, really neat place, it’s just far out there.”

Last summer’s huge BP oil spill did not damage the Banks, because currents swept the oil in the other direction.

“The first time I ever saw a slipper lobster was diving out there, and it just looked like a giant cockroach. I thought it was pretty cool.”

That’s Page Williams, a conservationist and member of the sanctuary’s advisory council. She wants the federal government to expand the sanctuary. It would grow from 56 to 280 square miles.

But Robert Palmer is against it.

“It’s so far out there that we just don’t have that much impact as a public.”

Palmer likes to spear-fish, but that’s not allowed inside the sanctuary. He fears that if the sanctuary grows to encompass nearby banks and reefs, then restrictions on fishing will apply to those areas, too.

Commercial fishing methods like trawling are also prohibited inside the sanctuary, because that can damage the coral. Joe Hendrix is a fish farming consultant and also sits on the sanctuary’s advisory council. He wants more studies done first, to see if the new areas really need protection.

“Just to say well here’s a rocky area at the bottom and we’re going to go in and close it off because there may be something there, that’s a dangerous proposition.”

George Schmahl is the sanctuary superintendent. He says banks just outside the Flower Gardens also need the same protected status.

“So, it is an area where fish go to spawn, where they go to breed. And therefore that feeds essentially the fishery, or helps feed the fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. So if people like to enjoy seafood, eat fish, like to fish things like that, even though they might not go to the Flower Garden Banks, those fish that they eat may have come from there or may have grown up there and gone somewhere else to be caught.”

Schmall also points out that coral reefs in warmer waters are in trouble. He says that the reefs in the northern Gulf may provide a biological refuge during climate change.

“These northern latitude reefs, where they exist, may be one of the hopes, hope spots, you know, for corals to survive some of these impacts of elevated water temperature for example.”

If the expansion goes through, the Flower Garden Banks will encompass less than .05 percent of the Gulf of Mexico. But it could take a few more years, and will require more hearings.

In the meantime, the federal government will issue new regulations for the existing sanctuary sometime this spring.

 

Flower Garden Banks Map
Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...