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Florida Legislature approves Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

By Florida's Original NatureCoaster™ Posted on March 24, 2020

Nature Coast Florida lawmakers recently passed legislation to create the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, protecting part of the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass meadow and safeguarding economies of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties that depend on healthy seagrass.

If approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the preserve would span about 800 square miles and protect approximately 400,000 acres of seagrass needed for businesses and activities that form the backbone of the coastal economy, including manatee-watching, scalloping, fishing, and boating.

“The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve could serve as a lasting legacy that will safeguard the region’s environment, fishing, and tourism businesses for generations to come,” said Holly Binns, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean and coastal conservation work in the Southeast. “We are hopeful the governor will agree that this is a win for the economy and environment.”

Florida Legislature Approves Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

The preserve – which would be the 42nd in the state and the first designated in more than 30 years – will support traditional activities ranging from fishing to scalloping while limiting such activities as well drilling, dredging or filling submerged lands and installing structures other than docks.

Mullet and other local fish utilize seagrass to lay eggs, raise fry and hide from predators. Healthy seabeds are an important part of a healthy Gulf. Image courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts.

Florida Seagrass Beds are Valuable

  • Florida seagrass beds contribute more than $20 billion a year to the state’s economic health by providing habitat for commercially and recreationally important finfish and shellfish, stabilizing the seafloor and filtering pollution, which keeps the water clear and healthy for marine species and human enjoyment.
  • Seagrass-dependent species, including valuable fish species (gag grouper, spotted seatrout, redfish, tarpon, stone crab, bay scallop, and shrimp) as well as manatees and sea turtles support valuable fisheries, seafood production, working waterfronts and eco-tourism that generate approximately $600 million for the region’s economy annually, provide more than 10,000 jobs and fuel more than 500 businesses.
  • Approximately 70 percent of the species that fishermen target in Florida, including redfish, grouper, and tarpon, spend at least part of their life cycle within seagrass communities.
  • Commercially fished seagrass-dependent species generate more than $12 million in average annual revenue in the Nature Coast counties.
  • Since 2003, Citrus and Hernando counties each reaped nearly $2 million a year in economic impact from recreational scallop harvesting in seagrass areas
  • In Pasco County, seagrass provided an essential habitat that helped the diminished scallop population recover sufficiently to support 10-day mini-seasons in 2018 and 2019.
Eelgrass provides healthy nutrition for numerous Gulf species. Image courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts.

Legislators worked closely with the three counties and stakeholders to ensure that existing navigational channels would be maintained, that restoration funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill could be used to enhance the preserve, and that the preserve boundaries would not infringe on property owners’ rights to build docks.

The bills, HB 1061 and SB 1042 sponsored by Rep. Ralph Massullo (R-Lecanto) and Sen. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula) garnered widespread support and sailed through six legislative committees before approval by the full House on Monday and the Senate today.

More than 100 Nature Coast businesses, nine state and national recreational fishing and marine industry organizations, the Citrus and Hernando county commissions, and The Pew Charitable Trusts supported them.

Legislators worked closely with the three counties and stakeholders to ensure that existing navigational channels would be maintained and that the preserve boundaries would not infringe on property owners’ rights to build docks. Image courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts.

Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve creates a Contiguous Protected Area

The new Nature Coast Aquatic preserve will border several existing ones in Pinellas County, St. Martins Marsh, and the Big Bend, creating a large, contiguous protected area for the valuable marine coastline.

The need for water quality protections in Florida is growing more urgent in the face of increasing pollution threats.

In recent years, red tides and other harmful algae blooms on both coasts, fueled by nutrient-laden runoff, have taken a severe toll on fishing and tourism businesses. A new preserve on the state’s west coast could add a layer of protection to help avert such a disaster there.

Image courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The aquatic preserve will also be designated as an Outstanding Florida Water, which is the state’s highest level of water quality protection and is assigned to areas worthy of special safeguards.

Many Benefits are created by Aquatic Preserves

Benefits of an aquatic preserve can include

  • Facilitating the purchase of nearby conservation lands to filter out contaminants in surface water runoff
  • Limits on dredging and the size and location of dock construction to protect seagrasses
  • Provision for sewage pump-out facilities open to the public to keep the waters free of harmful bacteria.

For each preserve, including this one, the state develops a management plan—with input from local governments, citizens, and other stakeholders—that is overseen by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, grants final approval for the management plan.

The plan’s goal is to maintain the preserve’s biological, scientific, and aesthetic value for future generations to enjoy while allowing and improving access for activities ranging from boating to fishing.

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