PORT RICHEY — Last year, Florida lawmakers created the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, setting up more than 700 square miles along the coast of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, to be jointly managed and help the state strike a complex balance of protecting natural resources while recognizing their economic importance.
Now, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection wants public input to define the community’s views.
The preserve includes the largest swath of lush seagrass in the Gulf of Mexico, at 400,000 acres. It is also home to sponge fields, mangrove forests, oyster reefs and salt marshes — environmental gems that are vital to marine life and sensitive to human use.
Locals fish these areas and enjoy water-based recreation. Commercial fishing interests also rely on the health of the Gulf and its resources for their livelihood. So does the tourism industry, drawing outsiders to activities ranging from scalloping to interacting with manatees.
All these Gulf-dependent activities “generate more than $600 million annually for local communities, provide over 10,000 jobs, and support about 500 businesses” in the area, explained Holly Binns of Pew Charitable Trusts in a release announcing the public meeting. The organization spearheaded the creation of the Nature Coast Preserve.
Just how to make that balance work best for all interests will be the job of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as it crafts the formal management plan for the Nature Coast Preserve.
That work requires input from those most interested in the future of the resources. The job kicks off Tuesday, when the agency will sponsor a virtual public input session from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. inviting those with ideas, suggestions and observations about what the preserve area needs to stay healthy for the environment and the critical commerce it creates in the area.
“Each of the state’s 42 preserves has a management plan that is tailored to provide managers and local communities with a roadmap for effective stewardship and must strike a balance between human uses and conservation needs,” said Debbie Salamone, communications officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
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“Tuesday’s meeting will give members of the public a chance to list their priorities for what they’d like to see incorporated — things ranging from boater education and algal bloom/red tide monitoring to habitat restoration projects or work to improve safe navigation,” she said.
While establishment of the preserve had widespread support across the three counties, there have been concerns raised about how a new management plan could impact local water uses and access.
In Pasco County, there was some pushback by local fishing charters as well as state Rep. Amber Mariano, the only representative who voted against its establishment, and her father, Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano.
Both were concerned that the new designation might have a negative impact on the residential canal dredging activities they support in Pasco County. The original version of the bill to create the preserve stretched the footprint all the way to U.S. 19, which would have included residential canal areas. That was dropped in the final version of the bill that created the preserve.
According to Binns, a draft plan is expected by spring, and the public will have another chance to weigh in.
A final plan must be approved by the Acquisition and Restoration Council, a 10-member group consisting of state environmental agency representatives and appointees of Florida’s governor, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The governor and cabinet, which make up the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, have final approval authority.
After preserve management plans are approved, the Department of Environmental Protection will work with stakeholders to implement them and will review them periodically to address updated science, monitoring results, emerging issues and local concerns. Binns said.
“By properly managing the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, Florida could provide 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,” she said.