Florida Seeks Public Input on Managing New Aquatic Preserve

Nature Coast plan should balance recreation, conservation, and economic needs

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Florida Seeks Public Input on Managing New Aquatic Preserve
 Scattered fire rope sponge (Aplysina fulva) sits next to a Loggerhead sponge (Spheciosponiga vesparium {right}), with Lesser starlet coral (Siderastrea radians {off to the left) in Crystal Bay within St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve on May 12, 2019, offshore of Crystal River, Florida.
The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve’s underwater ecosystems include sponges like these, along with seagrass, oyster reefs, and other habitats that provide food and shelter for valuable wildlife such as manatees and fish.
Charlie Shoemaker

When Florida created the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve off the state’s west coast two years ago, officials knew the next big step would be determining how to best protect the preserve’s more than 700 square miles of coastal habitat.

To help accomplish that, the state Department of Environmental Protection is hosting two meetings—on May 19 and 24—to seek public input on a proposed management plan for the area, which covers species-rich coastal habitat north of Tampa and off the shores of Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties. Both meetings are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. EDT; the May 19 meeting will be virtual (see details here, and register here). Information about the May 24 in-person meeting is here.

The Nature Coast site is one of Florida’s 42 aquatic preserves, each of which has a tailored management plan that is meant to strike a balance between human uses and conservation needs. In the Nature Coast preserve, those needs include safeguarding more than 450,000 acres of seagrass, mangrove islands, salt marsh, oysters, sponges, corals, and other species. The area is popular for its summertime scalloping, world-renowned fishing and manatee watching, and other activities that generate more than $600 million annually for local communities, provide over 10,000 jobs, and support about 500 businesses.

Since Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and the Florida Legislature created the preserve in 2020, the public and an advisory committee of local business leaders, fishing guides, ecotourism operators, academics, state and county resource managers, and conservation groups have had several opportunities to provide feedback about priorities for the area. Facilitators from the University of Florida incorporated the information into the draft plan and will do the same after the May public meetings and an additional advisory committee meeting. Final plan approval rests with the governor and Cabinet. 

Public input will help guide important aspects of the draft plan, including:

  • Protection and management of submerged resources. What management, restoration, and monitoring activities are 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?

Once the governor and Cabinet approve a management plan, DEP will work with stakeholders to implement it. The agency will review the plan’s stated goals every 10 years and revise them if needed based on new science, monitoring results, emerging issues, and local concerns.

By properly managing the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, Florida could safeguard an economic engine for the community while protecting water quality and habitat for a wide array of wildlife—all of which can secure a sustainable way of life for Floridians well into the future.

Justin Grubich is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project and serves on the advisory committee for the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve’s management plan. Cameron Jaggard is a principal associate with Pew’s project.

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