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nature coast aquatic preserve

Welcome Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

By Diane Bedard Posted on July 9, 2020

The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve wass created on June 29, 2020. This historic event protects about 800 square miles of coastal waters off Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties, providing important safeguards for approximately 400,000 acres of seagrass. 

Florida’s Nature Coast region is known for its world-class manatee-watching, scalloping, and fishing. These activities are dependent on seagrass and generate approximately $600 million for the tri-county region each year.

mullet
The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve is the first aquatic preserve enacted by Florida’s lawmakers in over 32 years. It’s purpose is to help protect the largest seagrass bed in the Gulf of Mexico. Image by Charlie Shoemaker, courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts.

New preserve protects economically important area within Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass bed

Seagrass-dependent activities in Florida’s Nature Coast provide more than 10,000 jobs and fuel more than 500 businesses! It’s no wonder that over 100 businesses in the region (including NatureCoaster.com) supported the legislation that created the Preserve. You can see the letter and list here.

“This is a fantastic move. I am excited that Governor DeSantis supported the initiative to create the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. Our beautiful ecosystems are unlike any in the world and are deserving of protection,” said Dave Perry, Jr., owner of Hunter Springs Kayaks and Just Amuse Me in Crystal River, Florida. “Knowing we will have this for future generations to enjoy makes me proud to be part of this community.”

Dave Perry, Jr., Melissa, and Brianna Perry enjoy the pristine waters of this unique area that the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve will help protect. Image by Diane Bedard.

The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve borders several existing ones in Pinellas County, St. Martins Marsh, and the Big Bend, creating a large, contiguous protected area for the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass meadow.  

St. Martin’s Marsh Aquatic Preserve includes the Nature Coast Keys of Ozello. It is a wild place consisting of a chain of small islands in a coastal marshland. Ozello has been called “the Keys of the Nature Coast.” Image by Diane Bedard.

Important Marine Habitats are Protected in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

The mosaic of marine habitats in this Preserve include salt marsh, mangroves, oyster reefs and hard bottom.

These habitats provide nursery grounds and shelter for manatees, sea turtles, scallops, crabs, and shrimp. These habitats house approximately 70 percent of the species that fishermen target in Florida, including redfish, grouper, and tarpon.

floridas aquatic preserves

Protecting Nature Helps to Protect the Nature Coast Economy

When NatureCoaster inquired as to why an organization as large and well-known as The Pew Charitable Trusts got involved with supporting the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, Holly Binns, Director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean and coastal conservation work in the Southeast was quick to reply.

“We identified areas where there are large swaths of healthy coastal habitat, and then looked at what kind of protections exist for these sensitive marine ecosystems,” Holly explained. “When we overlaid those maps, the Nature Coast stood out because there was a clear gap in protection for the coastal waters of Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties, which are home to over 400,000 acres of seagrass that provide the foundation for coastal businesses, time-honored family traditions, and a way of life. The aquatic preserve will protect that resource so those businesses can continue to thrive for years to come.”

Fly Fishing Homosassa
Tarpon are a seagrass-dependent species of fish popular in sport fishing. Image courtesy of Fly Fishing Homosassa.

The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve becomes the 42nd in the state and the first designated in 32 years. 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.  

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.

planting eel grass crystal river
A diver planting eel grass to help restore the aquatic ecosystem in Florida’s Nature Coast. Image by Charlie Shoemaker, courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trust.

This new preserve will add a layer of protection to help avert such a disaster in Florida’s Nature Coast. The preserve limits such activities as well drilling, dredging, or filling submerged lands and installing structures other than docks. 

Lawmakers Created the Preserve in March

Florida lawmakers passed legislation in March to create the preserve. The bills, HB 1061 and SB 1042 sponsored by Rep. Ralph Massullo (R-Lecanto) and Sen. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula), garnered widespread support and cleared six legislative committees before approval by the full House and Senate.

sea grass in the nature coast aquatic preserve area
The benefits of an aquatic preserve include limiting development and dredging, as well as facilitating the purchase of conservation lands nearby. Image by Charlie Shoemaker for Pew Charitable Trust.

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; and provision for sewage pump-out facilities open to the public to keep the waters free of harmful bacteria.

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’s boundaries would not infringe on property owners’ rights to build docks.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed the executive order creating the preserve on June 29, 2020.

manatee in crystal river
Over 500 local businesses on Florida’s Nature Coast derive their livelihood from seagrass-dependent activities. This includes ecotourism. Image by Charlie Shoemaker, courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts.

Local Businesses, Governments, and Organizations, as well as the Pew Charitable Trusts, supported the Legislation

“The creation of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve is a significant achievement for the region” expressed John Pritcher, Director of Citrus County Tourist Development Agency, Discover Crystal River.  “These are truly pristine waters worthy of the designation.  The springs, rivers and seagrass beds of these coastal waters are the foundation of Citrus County’s community life and tourism economy with activities like manatee watching, scalloping and fishing.  This is of critical importance for us.”

More than 100 Nature Coast businesses (including NatureCoaster.com), nine state and national recreational fishing and marine industry organizations, the Citrus and Hernando county commissions, and The Pew Charitable Trusts supported the legislation.

scalloping
The economic impact of scalloping activities to Hernando and Citrus Counties is estimated at $2 million annually each. What is the value of humans interacting with nature? Immeasurable. Image courtesy of Pew Charitable Trust.

What is the Value of Seagrass?

  • Seagrass-dependent species support valuable fisheries, seafood production, working waterfronts, and ecotourism. This generates approximately $600 million for the Nature Coast region’s economy annually, providing more than 10,000 jobs, and fueling more than 500 businesses.
  • Seagrass dependent species include valuable fish species (gag grouper, spotted seatrout, redfish, tarpon, stone crab, bay scallop, and shrimp) as well as manatees and sea turtles.
  • Altogether, 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.
captain william toney
Captain William Toney, a fourth-generation captain in Homosassa, helps people of all ages enjoy fishing through his Charters and educational endeavors. He is a member of the Homosassa Guides Association, another group committed to the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. Image courtesy of Captain William Toney.
  • 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 have each reaped nearly $2 million a year in economic impact from recreational scallop harvesting in seagrass areas, and in Pasco County, seagrass provided an essential habitat that helped the diminished scallop population recover sufficiently to support 10-day mini-seasons in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

These stats came from Pew’s brief about seagrass, where you can find the many sources for these facts.

stilt house sunset
From Anclote Key in Pasco County to Cedar Key in Levy County, the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve provides protection for the unique beauty of the area. Image by Diane Bedard.

Next Steps for the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

For each preserve, including this one, the state develops a management plan with input from local governments, citizens, and other stakeholders. The plan 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.

Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to help shape the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve’s management through surveys and meeting participation.

Comments

Greywolfe says

Given the daily bad news we all must now live with, the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve is a welcome example of people doing good - we could use more of this!

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