Protecting the Gulf of Mexico’s Largest Seagrass Bed in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve
People arrive in Florida looking for the beach, but when they arrive in Florida’s Nature Coast, they are often disappointed when told, “We don’t have much beach.” Listen, beachgoers… we have something more valuable along our coasts – salt marsh shores and seagrass beds.
What does that do for Pasco, Hernando and Citrus Counties? It provides a safe place for fish fry to grow into world-record catches, a healthy ecosystem for scallops and oysters to replenish after harvest season, sponges and corals to grow, and a truly beautiful place to visit.
Holly Binns, Director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ocean and coastal conservation work in the Southeast, explained why they got involved in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve years ago. “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.”
“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,” Holly told us.
Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Management Plan Aims to Protect the Gulf of Mexico’s Largest Seagrass Bed
In 2020, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill creating the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, protecting a 700 square mile area along the shores of Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties that contains 350,000 acres of healthy seagrass beds. It was the first aquatic preserve dedicated in Florida since 1988 and is the 42nd aquatic preserve in the State.
Under the Aquatic Preserve Resolution of 1969, and then in Chapter 258, Part II, Florida Statutes, aquatic preserves are set aside to be maintained in essentially the natural condition for the benefit of future generations.
Healthy submerged lands also provide a huge economic benefit to our Nature Coast. Robust fish populations provide sport fishing and sightseeing charters. They also allow professional fishermen, oyster fishermen, shrimpers, and tour operators the opportunity to support themselves and their families.
The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve is designated as an Outstanding Florida Water. It helps to protect the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass bed. An Outstanding Florida Water is a water designated worthy of special protection by the Florida legislature because of its natural attributes (e.g., excellent water quality or exceptional ecological, social, educational, or recreational value). This special designation is intended to protect and preserve existing good water quality.
Healthy seagrass provides abundant food for manatees and scallops, enabling a wonderful travel industry that connects visitors with unique marine experiences. These experiences provide the context for those humans to want to protect those species and ecosystems.
The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve and its new Management Plan are a great example of diverse groups coming together to protect our namesakes and our way of life.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary, Shawn Hamilton, approved the 330-page plan for managing the Preserve recently.
This plan was more than a year in the making and included several opportunities for public input and guidance from an advisory committee of local business leaders, fishing guides, ecotourism operators, academics, state and county resource managers, and conservation groups.
Diane Bedard, Publisher of NatureCoaster.com attended one of the public input opportunities. “We really enjoyed the process and were able to see and meet scientists, DEP officials, local captains, and nature lovers, all of whom cared about protecting our natural environment,” she said, “I see the results of some of my comments in the Plan.”
The need for Florida to protect its water quality is growing more urgent in the face of increasing population and pollution threats. In recent years, red tides, and other harmful algae blooms, fueled by nutrient-laden runoff on both coasts, have taken a severe toll on marine life, fishing, and tourism businesses. So far, our Nature Coast has been unscathed.
Justin Grubich, a PhD fisheries scientist, works on coastal conservation projects for The Pew Charitable Trusts and was heavily involved in creating the management plan for the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. He took some time to talk to NatureCoaster about this achievement and why it is groundbreaking.
“We had such a diverse group of advisors involved in creating and approving the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve management plan that it should last for generations, providing specific guidance to meet the goals of healthy water quality management, protecting and managing seagrass, sponge fields, oyster beds and other valuable submerged ecosystems, restoring the impacts of boat propeller scars, and managing for climate change.”
“This is the first Aquatic Preserve Management Plan to address climate change!” Justin shared, excitedly, “These management goals include addressing sea level rise and increased temperatures, which is groundbreaking.
Fortunately, the approved Plan includes significant water monitoring station improvements throughout the preserve. Justin explained that having more water monitoring stations provides better data which helps meet the goal of maintaining its pristine conditions.
“Our best tool when it comes to tracking the environment is consistent and standardized monitoring data. In the case of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve (NCAP), we collect a long list of water quality information at 90 stations on a monthly basis. The UF team will make comparisons between new data and historical information about the waterbodies along the Nature Coast,” explains Savanna Berry, a Regional Specialized Extension Agent based in Cedar Key at the UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station who specializes in coastal marine ecosystems, especially seagrass meadows.
“There is a large component of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Management Plan which seeks to build stewardship with the submerged lands through education and outreach. A new manager will be hired for the Nature Coast, and a Citizens Support Organization (CSO) is being formed,” Justin said.
Some highlights of the Plan include:
- Updating a monitoring network of 100 water quality data stations with advanced technology to watch for pollution, red tide, and other potential problems.
- Tracking effects of sea level rise, warming waters, drought and flood cycles, and storms while developing plans to address predicted impacts on sea life and sensitive marine habitats.
- Monitoring seagrass habitat and identifying areas in need of restoration, including seagrass, offshore hard-bottom areas, and coastal salt marsh.
- Increasing boater education and improving navigational aids, such as boat channel markers, to reduce seagrass damage from improper boating practices.
- Removing and reducing marine debris, such as litter, derelict vessels, and discarded fishing gear.
- Identifying potential environmental impacts from development and roadways and preventing habitat damage through stakeholder collaboration and information sharing.
At one point the Nature Coast was known as the lonesome leg of Florida, but today, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties are developing at a fast pace. To maintain the natural areas, and guide encroaching development to cohabitate with our parks, forests, and shores, we have to work together to protect what we have. There is no place for name calling and blaming.
By following the long-term, science-based approach laid out in the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Management Plan, along with securing community support and engagement, we can help protect one of the Nature Coast’s most important environmental and economic assets for generations to come.
Holly Binns is a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.
Justin Grubich works is an officer with the project and serves on the advisory committee for the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve’s management plan.
Featured image by Sally White.