|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.