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Expanded protection of coral reefs in Gulf of Mexico may not be ready for approval until 2020

Chron logo Chron 9/12/2018 Alex Stuckey, Houston Chronicle

A plan to expand the network of federally protected coral reef systems in the Gulf of Mexico may not be ready for approval by the Trump administration until early 2020, officials said Wednesday.

That means about five years will have passed since officials first began discussing in 2015 expanding the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located about 100 miles off the coast of Galveston.

The sanctuary designation, which prevents over fishing and harassment of marine life in the area, currently stretches across 56 square miles, or three banks. In May, the sanctuary's advisory council approved a proposal that would expand that area to 206 square miles, or 17 banks.

But officials have identified some tweaks that may need to made. For example, the new plan actually would eliminate some of the protected area around Stetson, one of the three current banks.

"There has not been a final decision how proceed," sanctuary Superintendent G.P. Schmahl said during a Wednesday advisory council meeting, adding that officials likely would adjust the Stetson Bank boundaries.

After officials decide whether to make these changes, the following steps must be completed before the new boundaries can be considered for approval, according to the Flower Garden Banks website:

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary has been identified as a nursery area for manta rays. It is one of the very few places identified worldwide. (Marissa Nuttall/Courtesy NOAA) © Hearst Newspapers Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary has been identified as a nursery area for manta rays. It is one of the very few places identified worldwide. (Marissa Nuttall/Courtesy NOAA) Hawksbill turtle is one of two turtle species that calls Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary home during part of its life. © G.P. Schmahl/Courtesy NOAA Hawksbill turtle is one of two turtle species that calls Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary home during part of its life.

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the 13 federally designated national marine sanctuaries, will ask the Department of Interior to analyse the plan to understand how the plan will impact energy and mineral resource development. At the same time, NOAA will continue working with the appropriate parties to examine fishing regulations.
  • Following the department's review, NOAA will take public statement on a proposed rule for the expansion. Schmahl said officials hope this can happen by May 2019.
  • After this is complete, NOAA makes a final decision on the expansion, which is expected to be done by the end of 2019.

A panorama from West Flower Garden Bank pair of the same area showing 2014 (pre-bleaching) and 2016 (post bleaching). © Emma Hickerson, Courtesy NOAA A panorama from West Flower Garden Bank pair of the same area showing 2014 (pre-bleaching) and 2016 (post bleaching). A research diver lines up a camera mounted on a t-frame to take a photo at a repetitive photo station on the reef. The resulting photograph will be analyzed for percent coral cover at a later date. © G.P. Schmahl/Courtesy NOAA A research diver lines up a camera mounted on a t-frame to take a photo at a repetitive photo station on the reef. The resulting photograph will be analyzed for percent coral cover at a later date.

That means that Congress likely will not be able to review the final plan until the beginning of 2020, Schmahl said. Congress members are given 45 days to review the plan and raise any concerns.

Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at alex.stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

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