All photos by Jesse Cancelmo
Before the Gulf of Mexico’s continental shelf drops to depths of about 600 feet, a manta ray glides above yellow grooved corals whose patterns resemble those of our brains. This kaleidoscopic ecosystem some 100 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas, bursts with over 20 species of corals. Here, in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, neon orange and blue sponges adorn rocks under which a green moray may be hiding. Shrimps, crabs and starfish lounge, brightening the scene.
The Flower Garden Banks became the country’s 10th national marine sanctuary in 1992, 13 years after advocates first nominated it. The banks are a mecca for wildlife, said Jessica Bibza, the senior wildlife policy specialist at the National Wildlife Federation. That’s why in January 2021 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tripled the sanctuary’s protection area from 56 square miles to 160 square miles.
Yet, ecosystems and habitats throughout the Gulf need even more federal protection. The region is under threat. For starters, there’s climate change and all that comes with it: warming oceans, ocean acidification and extreme weather. And then there’s the fossil fuel industry. Seventeen percent of US crude oil production comes from the Gulf. Local seafood economies rely on the Gulf’s health to support hundreds of thousands of jobs. This expansion of Flower Garden Banks adds a new safeguard, but the Gulf of Mexico requires more conservation efforts to survive.
Marine biologist Larry McKinney first explored the coral reefs as a student in the 1970s and has since dedicated much of his career to studying and protecting the Gulf of Mexico, serving on the sanctuary’s advisory council for more than 10 years. At 23, McKinney would voyage overnight for six to eight hours to reach the reefs on a university research cruise. “Even from the surface, you could see all the colors,” said McKinney. “I really understood where the name ‘Flower Garden’ came from.” He threw on his flippers and snorkel gear to take a closer look. He remembers being in the water, trying to look everywhere, all at once, to take the sight in. Thousands of small colorful dots swam toward him: orange creolefish, bright bluehead wrasses and various damselfish. “I had never seen anything like that,” he said.
The Flower Garden Banks is the area’s only marine sanctuary out of 15 around the US and only one piece of the larger reef system in the Gulf, which includes up to 200 banks that rise up to 50 feet from the surface, according to McKinney. To the northeast of the sanctuary is the DeSoto Canyon, where the recently discovered Rice’s whale likes to roam. The 30-ton, 42-foot-long baleen whale is one of the world’s most endangered whale species: Fewer than 100 are left.
In 2016, NOAA had initially proposed increasing the designation of the sanctuary to nearly 400 square miles, but representatives from the oil and gas industry argued during the public comment period that expanding to that size would negatively impact offshore energy exploration. Those reefs now remain vulnerable to encroaching polluters. Since 1942, about 6,000 oil and gas structures were installed in the Gulf of Mexico and more than 3,200 of them remain active today. The threat always remains of a spill or leak.
“What we have protected in the Flower Garden is a small chunk,” McKinney said.
Expanding the protected area keeps oil and gas interests outside its boundaries and prohibits ships from dropping their heavy anchors. Plus, anyone visiting the Flower Garden Banks is prohibited from disturbing or removing marine mammals or sea turtles from their homes. Anglers are still welcome—so long as they’re using a hook and line within federal fishing regulations. (No spearfishing!) In fact, anglers joined the Flower Garden Banks advisory council to advocate for the sanctuary’s expansion: two from the recreational side and two from the commercial. They understand the economic value of corals: Some 500 million people worldwide rely on corals for daily subsistence.
“More coral equals more fish,” said Scott Hickman, the council’s current chairman and a captain who usually visits the banks a few times a month in the summer. “You like catching fish? You like eating fish? Take care of the corals. Take care of the reefs. The two go hand in hand.”
The first time he saw the banks in the mid-1980s, Hickman was amazed to see the proximity to oil activity. “This is crazy that these two things are coexisting here together,” he remembers thinking. It wasn’t until 2010 that Hickman started focusing on coral conservation. He realized how delicate that coexistence was after BP’s Deepwater Horizon spilled 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf that same year. Hickman had the rare opportunity to fly over in a small propeller plane. Reality hit him: “Wow, this could completely change my lifestyle, the way I make my living, the way that my children may one day enjoy the ocean,” he recalls thinking as he saw the black goo encase the ocean.
And yet oil spills aren’t the corals’ greatest threat in his book. Climate change is.
All the greenhouse gas emissions that same industry creates after extracting, refining and selling the hydrocarbons they pull from the Gulf are heating up the planet. Warm waters have been causing mass bleaching events where corals expel the algae they rely on for food production and die. Some 33 percent of reef-building corals are at risk from increasing temperatures. Losing them to climate change would cost the US $3.4 billion in annual revenue.
The impacts are already happening in Flower Garden Banks. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017—which scientists have confirmed was supercharged from climate change—McKinney noticed the reefs were bleached. It was the first time he saw them that ghost white. The record-breaking storm dropped an estimated 15 trillion gallons of freshwater on eastern Texas. All the freshwater from the rain and pollution from sewage and trash ran off into the ocean where it suffocated and contaminated the corals. A study published in April 2021 confirmed this link, which was unexpected given how far off the coast the reefs sit.
“These are warning signs,” said G.P. Schmahl, the sanctuary’s superintendent with NOAA.
We’re being warned of what’s to come should our leaders continue to ignore the severity of the climate crisis and the vulnerability of marine habitats. “We cannot control [climate change] from a protected area point of view,” Schmahl said. “That’s a much bigger issue that we as a civilization have to deal with, but we can control certain direct impacts.”
That’s the value in these marine sanctuaries. They keep ecosystems safe from industry. It’s why we need more action. Part of President Joe Biden’s climate plan involves protecting 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 to conserve wildlife and carbon sinks, but the details remain unclear. A 24-page report released in May describes that logging and grazing will count as conservation. “It’s key that the Biden administration be strategic in where these protections fall,” said Mary Conley, the southeast marine conservation director for the Nature Conservancy. Nearly all of US protected waters are located in the Pacific, but other areas (like the Gulf) deserve special designations, too.
“We need to think about representation,” Conley said. “We don’t want all the areas to be coral reefs. We want a combination of coral reefs, important estuarine habitats, sea grasses, oyster reefs, important sand habitats.”
And she’s right. Everything’s connected. Pay a visit to the Flower Garden Banks around August, and you can witness the annual coral spawning, an underwater “snowstorm” where corals release eggs by the thousands. Nocturnal predators—from a red ruby brittle star to a whale shark—eat as many gametes as they can. Many coral eggs bob and drift away. Perhaps they pass an underwater gas pipeline—like the one that caused a blaze atop the ocean in July 2021. They float on until they attach somewhere within the Gulf of Mexico, hopefully to start a new reef colony.
The Gulf is a place of foreboding oil and gas rigs—and whimsical ecological marvels. The two can coexist for only so long before one takes over.
30 by 30 Resolution to Protect Nature
An ambitious goal could protect humans and wildlife from the worst of climate change. Join the journey to safeguard 30 percent of the world’s lands and waters by 2030.