A panel of marine scientists, representatives from the oil and gas industry, and recreational and commercial anglers are zeroing in on a plan to significantly expand the boundaries of a federal sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico rich with coral, marine life and ecological features.
The advisory council is nearing the next phases of a yearslong effort to protect certain natural features, while also accommodating economic interests in an area more than 100 miles off the coast of Galveston.
After more than a decade of discussion about a proposed expansion, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, as it’s formally called, is hashing out a final draft proposal based on geological data, fishing interests and oil and gas activity.
The plan is to get a proposal to the Sanctuary Advisory Council, an overarching committee, by April, members said. That proposal will ultimately need approval from Congress and the Trump administration before the expanded area becomes a protected sanctuary.
“We want to make sure there’s a light at the end of this tunnel and that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train,” said Shane Cantrell, an advisory council member representing commercial fishing.
The Flower Garden Banks is one of 13 national marine sanctuaries managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The administration designated the Flower Garden Banks a marine sanctuary in 1992 in an effort to study and protect the biological diversity of three communities: East Flower Garden Bank, West Flower Garden Bank and Stetson Bank. It covers 56 square miles.
The agency began exploring options for expansion in the early 2000s. An advisory council for the administration in 2007 recommended an alternative including 12 natural features and encompassing 281 square miles, said George “G.P.” Schmahl, Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary superintendent.
But after numerous surveys of the area, NOAA staff members suggested additional areas that should be covered because of their environmental significance. The agency’s recommendation includes 18 natural features and covers 383 square miles.
In a meeting Monday, council members pored over data, maps and ideas about which banks and geological areas should be protected by a sanctuary expansion and how boundary lines should be drawn.
NOAA, the government entity that oversees the marine sanctuary, has shown preference for a plan that would expand the sanctuary to 383 square miles.
At a time when coral reefs are under threat from warming oceans, scientists for the agency have argued protecting the ecological features and marine life is important.
Conservation groups have offered similar arguments for a sanctuary expansion, but in public comments have shown preference for a plan that protects a greater area.
Recreational and commercial anglers haven’t issued a full-stop opposition to expanding the boundaries, but have been involved to advocate for regulations that still allow access to productive reefs for fishing, said Buddy Guindon, owner of Katie’s Seafood Market and an advisory council member representing commercial fishing.
“We need a place to anchor where we don’t mess up coral,” Guindon said. “The council is interested in the core biological areas being protected — how you do that and allow anchoring around that with the boat over top is really the tough part.”
The fishing industry accepted some parts of the boundary expansion, but without addressing those regulatory parts of it, the recreational and commercial anglers’ support for expansion would likely be withdrawn, Cantrell said.
Much of the discussion Monday came down to fine-point questions of the shapes of boundaries and buffer zones.
For instance, could the boundaries be curved to protect certain features without including large areas around it or did they need to be straight-lined shapes on the map for buffer zones, members asked.
Clint Moore, an advisory council member and geologist representing oil and gas, said the energy industry was concerned with being able to drill about a mile outside of the so-called “No Activity Zones,” areas where the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management prohibits drilling.
“We as an industry do not want to drill on these banks; it’s just salt and it isn’t profitable,” Moore said. “What we’re most interested in is drilling beyond the no activity zone.”
But other members wanted to see oil and gas activity farther from protected banks and reefs.
“This is the give and take,” said Jake Emmert, an advisory council member representing conservation interests and a dive officer at Moody Gardens. “I want to see this line come in and you want to see this line go out.”
Oil and gas interests, which have represented the biggest opposition to the expansion as proposed in public comments, raised concerns about having wide buffer zones that would prevent oil and gas companies from leasing in parts of the Gulf. Moore advocated for moving certain buffer zones closer to allow for drilling around salt domes.
Schmahl countered that the agency had already made some concessions on buffer zones. The agency had originally advocated for 1,000 meters from salt domes to protect ecological features, but had agreed to move the buffer zone to 500 meters out from the domes, Schmahl said.
“It’s still too big,” Moore said. “It renders the salt domes useless for drilling.”
“It’s not too big if you’re trying to protect the biological features,” Schmahl said. “It’s a balance. We can meet in the middle.”
There needed to be compromise, Moore said. Most of the banks and salt domes were already off limits to oil and gas, but the industry wanted to see the boundaries narrowly confined to protect just the structures not the buffer zone around it, Moore said.
The advisory council will continue to meet to form a compromise proposal that can go before the Sanctuary Advisory Council, members said.
In a previous public comment period over an initial proposal, the agency received more than 8,000 comments relating to the expansion between June and August of 2016, according to the administration.
Nearly 75 percent of people who submitted comments supported the expansion, with the vast majority of those letters in favor of the expansion stemming from letter-writing campaigns and petitions from conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, according to the agency.
Many of those people who submitted comments wanted the agency to pick alternatives that would cover a greater swath of the Gulf, according to administration documents.
Of the 2,129 comments against the expansion, 95 percent stemmed from petitions and letter-writing campaigns brought by the American Petroleum Institute and Consumer Energy Alliance, according to the agency.
About 420 comments were unaffiliated with organized petitions and of those, 85 percent were in support of the expansion, according to the agency.