Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Public Meetings May 19 and 24: Let’s Get Involved

By Diane Bedard Posted on May 12, 2022

As more and more development reaches Florida’s Nature Coast, we may want to take to take the time to get involved in how our environment is protected. This unique piece of Florida cannot stay the same forever because the only constant is change. By working together, we can help shape how and where the development encroaches as more and more people discover our paradise.

With a natural coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus Counties have so far developed without destroying natural seagrass beds that support hundreds of species of wildlife.

Florida’s legislature, under Governor Ron DeSantis, created the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve in June 2020. Over 100 local businesses signed a letter expressing support for the Preserve’s creation, including NatureCoaster.

In the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, those needs include safeguarding more than 450,000 acres of seagrass, mangrove islands, salt marsh, oysters, sponges, corals, and other species. Our scalloping, fishing, hiking, kayaking, and manatee watching, and many other outdoor activities generate more than $600 million annually for local communities, provide over 10,000 jobs, and support about 500 businesses.

We can influence the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve’s Proposed Management Plan at a Public Meeting May 24

Nearly two years after the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve’s establishment, on May 19 and 24, two meetings will be held by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to seek public input on the proposed management plan for the area. Both meetings are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. EDT; the May 19 meeting will be virtual (information on how to participate is here), and the May 24 in-person meeting will be held at The Plantation on Crystal River, 9301 West Fort Island Trail in Crystal River, Florida.

We have the opportunity to comment on the management plan for our Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. FWC Photo

At these two meetings, NatureCoasters have an opportunity to comment on the plans that have been made for managing all this nature, which affects many of our livelihoods. The Plan for Managing the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve can be read here.

On May 26, the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Management Plan Advisory Committee will meet to discuss possible revisions to the draft management plan and to review comments received at the May 19 and 24 public meetings. The Final Plan will be approved in Tallahassee later this year.

What is the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve?

Seagrass at the Waccassaw Bay Preserve. Image by Sally White.

The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve is the second-largest aquatic preserve in Florida. It includes 800 square miles of coastal waters, with 625 miles of shoreline along Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties.

The first new aquatic preserve to be established in 32 years is bordered to the north by Big Bend Seagrasses and St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserves and to the south by Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve.

These four preserves together protect the largest contiguous seagrass meadow in the Gulf of Mexico and the largest spring-fed seagrass habitat in the world. There are mangrove islands, saltmarsh, sponge beds, marine springs, oyster reefs and limestone hardbottom habitats. Its karst geology and spring-fed rivers are key influences on the ecosystems and the wildlife that depends on them, including sea turtles and manatees.

nature coast aquatic preserve area map
The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve was approved in 2020, connecting over a million acres of saltwater seagrass meadows. Image courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts.

This in turn supports our working waterfronts industries, including fisheries, seafood production, and ecotourism.

What is Contained in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve?

There are over 1,300 cultural and archaeological sites in Citrus County alone. Concerns about losing cultural and archaeological resources as sea levels rise is part of the management plan.

Seven major rivers influence the waters of the Preserve. They are the Withlacoochee, Crystal, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, Weeki Wachee, Pithlachascotee, and Anclote. The flows of these rivers affect the Preserve’s waters.

weeki wachee manatees
Manatees on the Weeki Wachee River, whose watershed affects the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. Photo by Sally White

The salt marshes of the Preserve filter Gulf waters, affecting the saltwater intrusion back up the rivers.

Four first magnitude springs can be found in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve region, supplying more than 800 million gallons of freshwater a day. These spring groups are Crystal River/Kings Bay, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, and Weeki Wachee. If these spring vents are clogged, less freshwater is available.

The drainage basins of these water resources all affect the water in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, which affects the seagrass and its myriad of dependent life forms.

What Lives in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve?

Within the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve area, more than 20 native species are listed as endangered or threatened by state or federal designations. These include birds, reptiles, fish, as well as terrestrial and marine mammals. Many of these species are unique and exceptional.

Gulf Sturgeon jumping in a river. Image courtesy of FWC by Tim Donovan.

The Gulf sturgeon, for example, is a prehistoric fish that lives in the marine waters of the preserve and swims up the area’s freshwater rivers to spawn. The preserve also supports the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, considered the rarest sea turtle in the world.

These species are of special concern to the managers of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. The management activities are planned to reduce impacts to these species at every possible opportunity.

History Lives in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

Crystal River Archaeological State Park View from Top
View from Temple Mound A at Crystal River Archaeological Preserve. Image by Diane Bedard.

This region is a high-density area for cultural resources with evidence of many prehistorical people living here and a high number of shell middens, ceremonial sites, human remains, and various artifacts have been documented both on islands included within the Preserve’s boundaries as well as inland areas surrounding the preserve.

By preserving the natural resources, we can preserve the historical resources. It is important for historians, archaeologists, and biologists to work together to protect what is here. By educating and enforcing safe human interactions with these resources, we can share them with future generations.

Who is Managing the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve?

Scallops are gathered from the sandy, grassy bottom and kept in a net bag while scalloping.
Scallops are gathered and kept in a net bag while scalloping. Scallops are healthy in the area due to healthy sea grass beds. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection is the State organization that will manage our coastline. Their mission statement is conserving, protecting, restoring, and improving the resilience of Florida’s coastal and aquatic resources for the benefit of people and the environment.

Four long-term goals of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Draft Management Plan include:

  • Protection and management of submerged resources. Management, restoration, and monitoring activities needed to maintain and improve the preserve’s diverse habitats, including seagrass, oyster reefs, mangroves, salt marshes, sponges, and corals.
  • Water resources. How should managers design monitoring programs for water quality and quantity to maintain the preserve’s Outstanding Florida Water designation—a status assigned to areas worthy of special safeguards and that mandates the state’s highest level of water quality protection? What should be done to protect the quality and quantity of water resources necessary to sustain healthy seagrass meadows and other habitats that support human uses, such as scalloping, fishing, and manatee watching?
  • Human dimensions. How can the management plan promote diverse human uses while preventing habitat degradation related to population growth, marine debris, and scarring of seagrass by motorboat propellers? In what ways can the plan promote community stewardship for the long-term management of the preserve?
  • Climate change. How can the aquatic preserve address impacts of sea level rise, drought and flood cycles, and rising surface temperatures on coastal habitats such as mangroves and salt marsh?

Sources:

Comments

John Hart says

What a GREAT article !

Elizabeth says

As a recent Florida resident in Hernando County, I am so thankful for the NCAP mission to keep the nature coast healthy and vibrant. Thank you for you stewardship.

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