Florida Poised to Protect Gulf of Mexico’s Largest Seagrass Bed

Governor can sign off on a new aquatic preserve to help safeguard coastal economies—and a way of life

Florida Poised to Protect Gulf of Mexico’s Largest Seagrass Bed
Pew
Boaters stop to swim and fish in the clear waters of the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve in Crystal River, Florida, along the state’s Nature Coast. Bills passed by the Florida Legislature would expand protections to coastal waters off Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties.
Charlie Shoemaker for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Florida’s west coast is home to vast seagrass beds where fishing, scalloping, and ecotourism form the backbone of coastal economies.

Some 400,000 acres of those beds moved a critical step closer to protection during the Florida legislative session when lawmakers approved bills to create the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve off the coasts of Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties. The legislation now awaits signature by Governor Ron DeSantis (R).

With his approval, the area would become the first new preserve designated in more than 30 years and the 42nd in a state system designed to maintain water quality and biological value to ensure healthy ecosystems. The preserve, which covers part of the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass bed, would still allow traditional activities such as boating, fishing, and scalloping.

“I’m grateful to our elected officials for being champions of our Gulf waters, protecting our seagrass, our jobs, and environment for future generations,” said Captain William Toney, owner and operator of Homosassa Inshore Fishing in Citrus County.

Florida Representative Ralph Massullo (R-Lecanto) and Senator Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula) sponsored companion bills—HB 1061 and SB 1042, respectively—to create this preserve. They and other lawmakers recognized that protecting Florida’s waters is smart for the economy. 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 creation of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve.  

“We are thankful for the Legislature’s leadership,” said Jason Schratwieser, president of the International Game Fish Association. “The new aquatic preserve protects some of the state’s last best remaining seagrass beds and demonstrates the state’s commitment to keeping Florida the ‘Fishing Capital of the World.’”

In the tri-county area, the preserve would be especially helpful in safeguarding its existing good water quality. Clean water is essential to seagrass, which grows underwater and provides food, shelter, and nursery areas for a vast array of marine animals. That ecosystem supports a variety of activities, from summertime scalloping, world-class sport fishing, and internationally renowned manatee-watching to harvesting stone crabs and shrimp. Seagrass-related activities in the region generate more than $600 million annually for the economy, provide more than 10,000 jobs, and support about 500 businesses.

“Thanks to the Florida Legislature, we have taken a huge step toward protecting our waters and the vast acreage of seagrass on the Nature Coast,” said Steve Lamb of Citrus County, who owns Crystal Automotive and Motorcycle Group and is co-founder and vice president of Save Crystal River.

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. The aquatic preserve would 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.  

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 boating to fishing.

The new preserve would border several existing ones in Pinellas County, St. Martins Marsh, and the Big Bend, creating a large contiguous protected area for valuable marine coastline. The governor should sign this important legislation to safeguard Florida’s future and secure protections for this region’s fishing and tourism businesses. 

Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Conserving Marine Life program in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.   

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