Miles off the coast south of Galveston, a video shot underwater by snorkelers shows a group of dolphins heading deep down into the blue waters of the Gulf. Other images show reefs covered with brightly colored sponges and plants which was why years ago fishermen named this the Flower Gardens.
"It's a healthy, productive reef. It's a sentinel that tells us how healthy the oceans are about a hundred miles off the coast of Texas. And so it's a very special place," says Larry McKinney, a biologist with Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
McKinney has worked for years to protect the Flower Gardens but still allow the area to be used by the industries that dominate the Texas coast: shipping, fishing and oil and gas.
"You can see oil and gas production all around it, pipelines all around it, so I've always used it as an example of where you can have new conservation and oil and gas development going side by side," McKinney tells News 88.7.
But there's concern that the industrial and commercial use of the Gulf is threatening the fragile Flower Gardens. At present, only 56 square miles are protected as a marine sanctuary. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is proposing that the protected area be expanded. One proposal is to increase the sanctuary to cover 935 square miles. That's 17 times bigger and would create an protected corridor that would run from Texas almost to Florida, an area where things like oil drilling would be restricted.
"These areas that we are proposing for expansion are some of the most sensitive and important marine communities that occur anywhere in the world," says G.P. Schmahl, the manager of the Flower Gardens at NOAA's office in Galveston.
The proposal is comprised of five alternatives, each with an increasing area of coverage. What NOAA calls the “preferred alternative” would expand the protected zone to 383 square miles.
Few might debate the importance of the Flower Gardens but the new, larger expansion proposals caught the oil and gas industry by surprise.
"This is such an unexpected development," says Clint Moore, a geoscientist with a Houston company that does oil and gas exploration in the Gulf.
For years he has served on a council that advises NOAA on the Flower Gardens. Moore says the council supported expanding the sanctuary but only to 281 miles, not 935.
"It impacts 50 oil companies on 76 leases and that's dramatically increased from less than a dozen. That's a big problem," Moore tells News 88.7.
It's a problem that will be tackled by the advisory council and NOAA starting with public meetings in Houston and Galveston.
Click here for more information on where and when those meetings will be held.