Along the west coast of Florida, where the land meets the Gulf of Mexico, lies an unsung economic juggernaut: the Gulf’s largest seagrass bed, where fishing, scalloping, and recreational activities form the backbone of coastal economies.
Now, state lawmakers have a chance to protect a large portion of this bed, which is also vital to the ecological health of the Gulf and a coastal way of life.
Florida Representative Ralph Massullo (R-Lecanto) and Senator Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula) are sponsoring companion bills—HB 1061 and SB 1042, respectively—to create the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, encompassing more than 400,000 acres of seagrass along the coasts of Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus counties. If approved, this would be the 42nd aquatic preserve in a state system designed to maintain water quality and biological value—that is, a fully functioning ecosystem—while still allowing traditional activities such as boating and fishing.
Seagrass, which grows underwater, provides food, homes, and nursery areas for a vast array of marine animals. Along Florida’s three-county Nature Coast, that means a healthy ecosystem that supports a variety of businesses and activities, from summertime scalloping, world-class sport fishing, and internationally renowned manatee-watching to harvesting stone crabs and shrimp. All told, seagrass-dependent activities in the region generate more than $600 million annually for the economy, provide more than 10,000 jobs, and support about 500 businesses.
More than 100 Nature Coast businesses and eight state and national recreational fishing organizations support the bills.
This measure comes at a time when Floridians have grown acutely aware of the devastating impacts of polluted coastal waters. In recent years, red tides and other harmful algae blooms on both coasts fueled by nitrogen-laden runoff have taken a severe toll on fishing and tourism businesses. A new preserve on Florida’s west coast could add a layer of protection to help avert such a disaster there. Every aquatic preserve is also designated as an Outstanding Florida Water, which is assigned to areas worthy of special safeguards to maintain good water quality.
For each preserve, the state also develops a management plan—with input from local governments, citizens, and other stakeholders—that is overseen by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The 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 snorkeling to fishing.
The new preserve would border several existing preserves in Pinellas County, St. Martins Marsh, and the Big Bend, closing a geographic gap in protection for valuable marine coastline. State lawmakers should act now to safeguard Florida’s future and secure protections for this region’s fishing and tourism businesses.
Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. Conserving Marine Life program in the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Caribbean.