Anglers May Soon be Excluded from Flower Gardens

January brings thoughts of long range trips for tuna or the staging of large numbers of wahoo along the shelf. For the latter, one of the more popular destinations is the Flower Garden Banks. As most know, the Flower Gardens are a National Marine Sanctuary. There are many laws in place that are set to protect the coral cap and the marine inhabitants in and about the Flower Gardens. Among a few are no anchoring, no spearfishing and a multitude of regulations affecting the shipping and oil industries.

For now, recreational hook and line fishing is allowed within the FGBNMS (Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary) but that may soon not be the case. What would essentially be the first No Fishing Zones in our little piece of the globe is a real and present possibility.

The Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) is currently working on a required review of the 1991 Management Plan and there are many revisions being considered.

The Flower Garden Banks are Located in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, 70 to 115 miles off the coast of Texas. The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS or sanctuary) includes three separate undersea features; the East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank and Stetson Bank. The Banks range in depth from fifty-five feet to nearly five hundred feet and are underwater hills formed by rising domes of ancient salt. The Banks provide a wide range of habitat conditions that support several distinct biological communities, including the northernmost coral reefs in the continental United States. These and similar formations throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico provide the foundation for essential habitat for a variety of species. The combination of location and geology makes the FGBNMS extremely productive and diverse, and presents a unique set of challenges for managing and protecting its natural wonders. East and West Flower Garden Banks were designated a national marine sanctuary in 1992 for the purpose of protecting and managing the conservation, resources and qualities of these areas. Stetson Bank was added to the sanctuary in 1996. The management plan for FGBNMS was originally developed in 1991 as part of the National Marine Sanctuary designation process.

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) is required to periodically review sanctuary management plans to ensure that sanctuary sites continue to best conserve, protect and enhance their nationally significant living and cultural resources. Upon such review, NOAA has decided to update and revise the 1991 Flower Garden Banks management plan to address recent scientific discoveries, advancements in managing marine resources, and new resource management issues. In September 2006, the sanctuary embarked on its first Management Plan Review (MPR). This was a public process to examine the original designation documents, management plan and regulations. The review was also to evaluate them for the future.

The sanctuary mission revised with review of this management plan is to identify, protect, conserve, and enhance the natural and cultural resources, values, and qualities of FGBNMS and its regional environment for this and future generations.

As part of this Review and Revision process, the Sanctuary Advisory Council has recently released a Draft Management Plan or (DMP). This Draft includes many proposed changes such as Sanctuary Expansion to take in new areas outside the current sanctuary boundaries that have been defined as unique or unusual structural features that may be ecologically linked to each other. Another of the more controversial issues would be the proposed recreational fishing and diving closures. The Council is looking at closing all or part of the FGBNMS to recreational fishing and diving in conjunction with expanding the sanctuary boundaries. The closures are being considered for the purposes of studying the impacts of these activities on the natural resource by fisherman and divers alike.

Most fishermen and divers that have testified in front of the council have voiced concerns that closures just move the process one step closer to nothing more than a Marine Protected Area (MPA) , permanently closing the area to all such activities. Many of the concerns are that the council is moving forward in light of little or nonexistent data showing that recreational activities have any impact at all. They have also questioned the need for such closures due to the perception that the fishing effort is minimal simply because of the distance from shore.

The Draft Management Plan (DMP) itself simply sets up the process to explore these options and nothing within the DMP is currently set in stone. We often expect science to influence managers in their decision making, and while that is the one of the necessary components, we must remember that the decision-making body is made up of many different stakeholders that are working for one common goal, the protection of our natural marine resources. With that said, another crucial component is the user groups, the very public that owns the resource. The one thing that has been lacking in this process has been public involvement. While the entire process is done in a public manner, there has just been very little interest from the major user groups to speak out or show up for the meetings. Your opinion on this and future actions is necessary for the council to understand how to best use the science without leaving the users out in the cold.

The SAC will be taking public comment on the DMP until January 20, 2011. I would like to encourage everyone to take a closer look at the DMP. It can be found on the FGBNMS website If you would like to make a written comment you can do so via email at [email protected] or through snail mail by writing to:

George Schmahl - Superintendent
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
4700 Avenue U - Building 216
Galveston, TX 77551

Remember that the FGBNMS is your resource and you can have your voice heard. You can be a factor in how it is managed.