Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed a bill creating Florida’s first new aquatic preserve in 32 years.
The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve will span 800 miles off the coasts of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties. It’s home to the largest seagrass bed in the Gulf of Mexico, in an area where fishing, scalloping and wildlife tourism is key to the local economies.
“The local guides, the guide association was 100% for this,” he said, “because they know that it will ensure long-term viability for the fish and then hence, their job, their livelihood.”
The Florida Aquatic Preserve Act of 1975 ensures no utility infrastructure or pollution is allowed in protected areas. The new preserve, the 42nd in the state, will border several existing ones. The Gulf’s seagrass meadows help to stabilize the sea floor, filter pollution and serve as a nursery for fish species.
According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, the need for water-quality protections in Florida is growing more urgent in the face of increasing pollution threats. Holly Binns, Pew’s project director for the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Caribbean, said the preserve will work both for the environment and the economy.
“I think everyone realizes in recent years, red tides and harmful algae blooms on both coasts have been fueled by nutrient runoff, and it’s really taken a severe toll on fishing and tourism businesses,” she said. “So, this new preserve on the state’s west coast will add a layer of protection that could help to avert that kind of disaster there.”
Pew has estimated that seagrass-dependent activities generate $600 million annually and support more than 10,000 jobs for the tri-county area. State Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, and state Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, sponsored the legislation. Now, it’s up to the state to develop a management plan with input from local stakeholders.