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Standing in the surf on a Texas beach, it is easy to imagine that the sandy seafloor stretches out indefinitely under the swelling waves. But about 100 miles out, at the edge of the continental shelf, giant salt domes soar from the sand to form a dazzling underwater mountain range. These mountains, or banks, are home to some of the healthiest coral ecosystems in the world. Imagine the surprise of the fishers who first found it: colorful patches glowing in the middle of the ocean’s unending blue.
Those fishers were the first to fight to protect these one-of-a-kind coral ecosystems, and with the help of President George H. W. Bush, recreational divers helped establish the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 1992. The designation gave the area protection against oil and gas extraction, anchoring from shipping vessels, and overfishing. This paved the way for the sanctuary to become a popular recreational dive site, where car-sized boulders of star and brain coral house sea urchins, eels, lobsters, and young fish. Sanctuary status also qualifies the site for research funding which has contributed to studies on the effect of climate change on coral ecosystems, and the discovery of colorful new fish species like the Mardi Gras Wrasse, found almost exclusively inside the sanctuary.
Now, building on over 30 years of research in the sanctuary, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have proposed expanding the protected area from 56 square miles to 160, tripling the critical habitat protected. Great news, except that the expansion is far smaller than the one the public supported in the last round of comments, smaller than the one the staff preferred, and smaller than the minimum alternative.
The pushback? Oil and gas. The very industry responsible for catastrophes like the 2010 BP spill that killed as many as 166,000 sea turtles and 1 million seabirds and devastated frontline communities that depend on the ecosystem.
We need the largest possible expansion of this sanctuary, and we need it now. The stress of climate change and offshore drilling are building in these ecosystems. Expansion will protect their beauty, allow wildlife to thrive, and help protect all of us from climate change. Even commercial fish stocks thrive when significant areas are protected, something Native American groups across the country have advocated as well.
Beyond the current boundaries of the sanctuary, dozens of seamounts provide a respite for colorful sponges, spotted branching corals, sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, and others in the middle of the sandy ocean floor. But these mountains are not protected. It is time to expand the sanctuary and the oasis it provides. Under the threat of modern climate change, we need a sanctuary that protects the densest coral gardens, provides protection in the valleys between seamounts, and restricts fishing to hook and line recreational fishing only.
NOAA is in the process of reviewing the 1,619 comments received on their current expansion proposal. In the midst of a global pandemic that has cut so many of us off from our social lives, natural spaces that remind us of the wonders of the world are all the more important and Texans are making that clear; in comment after comment, we are telling the world that we will fight to protect our coral and support an expanded sanctuary. It makes me happy to see Texans uniting to stand up for wild open ocean spaces and protect this spectacular place.