This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA for short, announced it will expand the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to nearly triple its current size. Situated on salt domes rising up from the seafloor, Flower Garden Banks is one of only two marine sanctuaries in the entire Gulf of Mexico. Its brightly colored coral reefs are an important feeding ground for seabirds like Northern Gannets and Magnificent Frigatebirds.

After many years of gathering input from the fishing, diving, and conservation communities as well as the oil and gas industry, NOAA will expand the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary from 56 to 160 square-miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. The Gulf of Mexico is still recovering from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster 10 years ago, which began in the deep sea. From the smallest plankton, to the biggest whale sharks, the BP oil disaster affected the entire northern Gulf ecosystem. As the $20 billion BP settlement is spent to restore the Gulf, marine protected areas like this one allows the Gulf’s marine life a safe space to rest and feed, free from human disturbance.

Once the expansion takes effect, fishing gear will be limited, which decreases seabird bycatch and minimizes the amount of fish taken out of the ecosystem, providing seabirds with more fish to eat. Additionally, limiting oil and natural gas extraction will reduce the threat of additional oil spills in the Gulf. Without disturbance, populations of marine animals are healthier and more robust. Creating spaces in the ocean with little to no threats for the entire ecosystem to thrive has implications beyond the area of protection. As fish populations grow in number, they spillover to other areas of the ocean, creating more fish for fishermen to harvest and seabirds and other marine wildlife to eat.

With the increasing amount of human disturbances to our oceans and coasts, marine protected areas are more important now than ever for seabirds and other wildlife. Global seabird populations and North American shorebird populations have both declined by 70 percent in under 70 years. Human-caused threats such as development, harmful fishing practices, oil spills, and more have contributed to this decline. To reduce threats, marine protected areas provide spaces in the ocean and along our coasts for sea- and shorebirds to thrive.

When there are adequate protections in an area, the related coastal economies also get a boost. For example, marine protected areas provide ecosystem resources that are far higher than what they cost to operate and monitor these areas. For every $1 spent on establishing and monitoring marine protected areas, $20 is returned. That’s because these protected areas in the ocean benefit fisheries, improve tourism, sequester carbon, and host coastal ecosystems that provide neighboring communities storm protection benefits. Flower Garden Banks in particular supports a vibrant scuba diving industry on the Texas coast.

Kara Fox, Audubon's director of Gulf Coast restoration, is thrilled about what the expansion means for Gulf birds.

“Flower Garden Banks is so special—it’s the only place in the Gulf outside of the Florida Keys that you can see coral reefs, seabirds, sea turtles, and sharks all in one place. It’s important that we protect places like this while they’re still pristine and thriving. As oceanographer Sylvia Earle would put it, it’s a ‘hope spot’ for the marine life that are still recovering from the BP oil disaster.”

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