Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and the Red Snapper

Kathy Cyr is a Masters of Coastal and Ocean Policy student and will graduate from UNC Wilmington this spring. She is also a 2006 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy where she earned a BS in Operations Research and Computer Analysis. She is currently an active duty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. She has six years of sea time on three ships conducting fisheries law enforcement, drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, search and rescue, and security escorts for the U.S. Navy.

Map of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
In 1992, the United States designated Flower Garden Banks as a National Marine Sanctuary. The designation of “marine sanctuary” legally afforded the reef protection from commercial fishing and other potentially destructive human activities. The Flower Garden Banks is located one hundred miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. It includes three reefs, two of which are 15 miles apart. The area between the reefs is not part of the marine sanctuary. 

One reason the US decided to protect Flower Garden Banks is because the reef is a habitat for highly sought reef fish such as grouper and snapper. Reef fish make up approximately 18% of the Gulf’s commercial and recreational fishing industries.  

Status of the Northern Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Stock
During the 1990s, the Gulf’s red snapper stock, a particularly valuable reef fish species, nearly collapsed due to overfishing. Fisheries managers implemented policy to save the fishery including: reduced catch limits, limited fishing permits issued, restricted the size of retainable fish, restricted the type of gear used, and designated a fishing season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) projection models from the most recent red snapper stock assessment in 2015 shows the stock improving and continuing to rebuild under the current fishing policy and environmental conditions.

However, over the past several years, especially during 2016, scientists noticed coral bleaching and sponge die off events throughout the reefs (graph below). Coral bleaching is a visual stress signal, which can cause the coral to die if sustained over a long period of time. Coral bleaching usually occurs when water temperatures are too warm, but can also be caused by other factors such as pollutants and even an influx of fresh water from the coast. 

This threatens the effectiveness of protecting the reef as a means of protecting reef fish such as the red snapper.  The Flower Garden Banks reef does not serve as a spawning ground or home to the juvenile red snapper like it does for other reef fish. Instead, the red snapper relies on the reef habitat for shelter during the day.  During the night, the red snapper forages in the nearby muddy areas and then returns to the reef. The red snapper also only uses the reefs from ages two to approximately seven years. These ages are when the female red snapper is old enough to spawn and account for most of the commercially caught red snapper.  If the reef dies the life cycle of the snapper is interrupted.   

Can the National Marine Sanctuaries Act save the Flower Garden Banks reef system from decline? 

The Act provides the reef protection from commercial fishing and pollution through enforcement by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While both agencies can monitor pollution spills and help prevent overfishing, neither have the means to adjust the water’s salinity nor prevent the water from becoming progressively warmer each summer. These issues require a much larger scale solution than the National Marine Sanctuaries Act provides. 

Can the red snapper survive without a natural reef system? 

One potential solution to help the red snapper adapt is artificial reefs. The red snapper currently inhabits several artificial reefs, in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Another solution is to include the 15-mile area located between the two reefs as part of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. This would protect some of the red snapper stock from commercial fishing as they feed at night. 

Ultimately, the United States created the National Marine Sanctuaries Act to protect critical marine habitats. These habitats are important to the survival of marine life, but may require more protection than the government can offer. In the case of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and the red snapper, it’s not only a matter of protection, but also a matter of adaptation. Artificial reefs and expanding the area within the Marine Sanctuary are viable options, but neither addresses the threats to the reef itself. Scientists and policy makers must address the larger climate issue influencing the state of the Flower Garden Banks reef system in order to protect the reef, red snapper, and Gulf Coast fishing industry.


  1. Unfortunately, it seems time and again we see marine fisheries facing difficult times. There is an increase in demand as well as a decrease in supply for wild caught fish species. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act in theory addresses one critical part of preserving natural stocks: habitat protection. Without proper habitat, it is impossible for any species to survive. However, this is one small piece to the puzzle. As described by Kathy, other problems threaten the survival of Red Snapper and other marine species alike. Warming ocean temperatures coupled with pollution are major threats that are even more dynamic and more far reaching than the systemic issues plaguing fisheries management. I think the alternatives offered by Kathy are sound. Artificial reefs are proven to be successful. One other option to look at are the projects that grow coral reefs from the polyp stage as an effort to combat coral bleaching.

  2. Kathy makes some great connections between coral bleaching and the life history of the red snapper. This issue will become increasingly important as oceans continue to acidify and warm as a result of global warming. I like the idea of artificial reefs. Like Chris said, there is a great deal of support for this alternative. It would be interesting to do a cost-effectiveness analysis to see how much it costs to implement these artificial reefs, and if the stock numbers increase as a result of more suitable and sustainable habitat. If so, the revenue value of commercial landings might be well worth the cost of implementation. This problem is likely experienced in other fish stocks, making it highly applicable across the board for reef-dwelling fish. Can't wait to see the final product of this research!

  3. The situation surrounding the red snapper in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is one that is not uncommon. Despite being afforded protection by the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, there are so many factors that intertwine to contribute to the status of the red snapper that it is hard to control all of them. Coral bleaching is a symptom of a larger problem that virtually everyone contributes to. Managing to control such large issues like acidification that have so many contributors is a massive undertaking in itself and demand for seafood in general continues to increase. After reading the alternatives provided above but also thinking about last week's aquaculture post, I wonder how well the red snapper would fare in aquaculture to relieve some of the demand for the species as well as the ecosystem in the sanctuary.

  4. I really like your solution of including the 15 miles in between the two reefs. I think you could combine the two solutions you proposed. That 15-mile stretch can become apart of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary along with adding artificial reefs in that 15 miles. This would create a corridor for the red snapper along with new habitat and protection from overfishing. It is hard to mitigate ocean acidification because basic solutions cannot be added. I feel all we can do to help fisheries in the face of this problem is creating new habitat. Some corals are known to be more tolerant to acidity so hopefully there will come a day where the coral species have adapted to the new ocean acidity.

  5. Marine fisheries seem to always face difficult times and it is apparent in Kathy's post. I think the artificial reef solution would be very beneficial and would could even be used for ecotourism, helping the coastal communities. It seems apparent that this issue is important and affects a lot of people.

  6. It is interesting (and alarming) that coral bleaching and degraded habitat have posed more of a threat to snapper populations in the protected sanctuary areas than illegal harvesting does. As Kathy explains, this is alarming because the enforcement bodies can not combat or regulate acidification or salinity. I think creating habitat artificially and maybe even closing off the corridor between the two adjacent reefs are good alternatives. I wonder, though, how closing off the 15 mile passage might affect the fisheries and travel paths of vessels whose industry depends on that territory. Would it be welcomed to save the snapper, or opposed as a territorial take-over?

  7. I think this issue has a large up hill battle because of the state of other coral reefs across the world. Rep snapper may just be another species that we lose due to the decrease in reefs. This reminds me of the issues surrounding the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. While I was studying there the Prime Minister was looking into dredging more area near it which would effect the reef negatively. There was was a lof to push back by the public however because of the tourism aspects of the reef. I wonder if that would help this issue. By creating some eco tourism the issue could gain some more public attention.


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