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The public can weigh in on how to best manage the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

Florida Department of Environmental Protection

The first of two public hearings on managing one of the largest aquatic preserves in the Gulf of Mexico will be held Thursday night. It is home to the largest concentration of seagrass in the Gulf.

The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve is the second largest offshore preserve in the state — and the first to be created in 32 years.

The preserve was formed in 2020, but the pandemic put a hold on public outreach. Now,a plan is being drawn up to help manage the 700 acres offshore of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

The state is in the process of creating a management plan to strike a balance between human uses and conservation.

Justin Grubich is a science and policy officer for The Pew Charitable Trust, which is helping lead the effort.

"That area is one of the most pristine seagrass habitats left in Florida," Grubich said. "So we all recognized that there was a pressing need to make sure that a management framework was in place to insure that that seagrass habitat remains healthy for generations to come."

He calls the plan a "living blueprint" to create a balancing act between the needs of humans and wildlife.

"It also provides for improving public awareness of the management needs for these habitats like seagrasses, mangroves, salt marsh and sponges," he said, "that not only provide for recreational and commercial fisheries, but also provides the habitat and create resources for endangered species like manatees and sea turtles."

Public hearings to get input on the management plan will be held virtually at May 19 at 6 p.m.and May 24 in Crystal River.

Thursday, May 19, 6-8 p.m.


Tuesday, May 24, 6-8 p.m.

Plantation Inn, Magnolia Room B

9301 West Fort Island Trail, Crystal River

Here's more information from Pew:

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?

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.