Sea fans and other gorgonians near a shallow water wreck in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Located off the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, the sanctuary protects the most extensive living coral reef in the United States is adjacent to the 126 mile island chain of the Florida Keys. The 2,800 square nautical mile sanctuary includes the productive waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean.
With multiple sanctuaries located in the Gulf of Mexico region, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) has been on hand to support NOAA’s oil spill response efforts since the first days following the Deepwater Horizon incident. Personnel from across the National Marine Sanctuary System have been deployed to the command posts in Louisiana and Washington, DC, where they are assisting with shoreline cleanup and assessment, geographic information system support, environmental monitoring, and media relations.
Staff from the Flower Garden Banks and the Florida Keys national marine sanctuaries — both located in areas that could potentially be affected by the spill — and ONMS headquarters in Silver Spring are also supporting natural resource damage assessment for sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs, seagrass beds, and shoreline habitats, as well as water quality and cultural resources. They are working with state, federal, and tribal trustees to determine how best to measure impacts from the oil spill to those resources.
Situated 70 to 115 miles off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary includes underwater communities that rise from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico atop underwater mountains called salt domes. Protecting a diverse array of life, such as the Bermuda chub, Bluehead wrasse, and mustard hill corals shown here, Flower Garden Banks is the only sanctuary that sits directly in the Gulf of Mexico.
Florida Keys sanctuary personnel are working to prepare for the possibility of oil reaching the sanctuary, including leading discussions to evaluate which methods of protecting shorelines from oil or tar balls would be appropriate for reducing potential injury in the Keys. At the same time, the sanctuary has been responding to a separate incident in which tar balls washed up in the Keys. While the tar balls were determined not to be related to the BP spill, they provided an opportunity to test the effectiveness of oil countermeasures and shoreline cleanup options.
Staff from the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California, which was impacted by the Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 2007, also helped develop a smartphone application based on the Beach Watch volunteer program that will allow trained members of the public to contribute information about beach and shoreline conditions as part of an early warning system.
The Office National Marine Sanctuaries manages a national network of underwater marine protected areas. Designated by Congress, these special ocean and Great Lakes areas are designed to protect natural and cultural resources, while allowing people to use and enjoy our oceans and coasts. The first sanctuary was created in 1975 and the network has since grown to include 13 national marine sanctuaries and one marine national monument. Through their knowledge and experience, sanctuary personnel continue to help protect and restore Gulf resources and minimize injury to our national marine sanctuaries.