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Legislators okay seagrass protection zone for Pasco, Hernando, Citrus

The single dissenter in Tallahassee is Rep. Amber Mariano.

John Alloco wonders about the need for an aquatic preserve off the coast of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

"We have some of the greatest seagrass in the country,'' said Alloco, a Hernando County commissioner. "We’ve been been able to do it with very little restrictions from the state or federal government.''

That could change if Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a bill creating the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve that gained nearly unanimous support among Florida legislators.

Related: Who wouldn't want coastal aquatic preserve? Lots of people, apparently

There was only a single "nay'' vote in Tallahassee, and that came from state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson. Her father, Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano, is one of the plan’s biggest critics. He said the preserve could be detrimental to the county’s long-range plans to dredge canals leading from west-Pasco’s waterfront neighborhoods to the Gulf of Mexico.

But there are plenty of advocates, too.

“The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve could serve as a lasting legacy that will safeguard the region’s environment, fishing and tourism businesses for generations to come,” said Holly Binns, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean and coastal conservation work in the Southeast.

The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Beverly Hills, closes the gap in the existing aquatic preserve on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which had excluded Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. If approved by the governor, the area will join 41 existing preserves in Florida totaling 2.2 million acres.

The idea is to protect the 400,000 acres of seagrass across 800 square miles. Seagrass beds serve as a measure of water quality and provide habitat for a variety of marine life, including scallops. A single acre of seagrass can support nearly 40,000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates like lobsters and shrimp. The meadows exist close to land in shallow water, but can grow in deeper areas of the Nature Coast because of a gentle slope to the floor of the Gulf and clear water allowing sunlight to reach the plants, according to the Pew Trusts.

Massullo altered his original bill to try to overcome objections that the preserve shouldn’t extend as far east as U.S. 19. Instead, the legislation now designates the preserve as offshore and not affecting existing inland canals or rivers. The Senate adopted the House version of the bill, which also provides funding for the state Department of Environmental Protection to hire additional staff to monitor the seagrass health and water quality off the shores of the three counties.

Most of the local concern centers upon the preserve’s designation that allows the state to limit activities like well drilling, dredging or filling submerged lands and installing structures other than docks.

Alloco and Hernando officials worry about their shovel-ready projects to be financed by federal Restore Act dollars from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Related: Pasco digs in to study dredge costs

Pasco commissioners share Mariano’s concern about future dredging.

The county is financing a $100,000 study for a consultant to determine how much it will cost to dredge the Gulf Harbors and Hudson channels. In 2017, the consulting firm Dewberry in Tampa estimated the cost of dredging a dozen coastal canals serving seven west-Pasco communities at $13.5 million.

"My concern (with the bill) is the existing canals,'' said Pasco Commissioner Mike Wells Jr., a licensed boat captain. "There is going to be the opportunity to make them safer, make them more navigable.''

Wells said he hoped the Legislature would amend the preserve’s boundaries next year so the existing channels won’t be affected.

"Ultimately, we want to manage the seagrass as well as we can, but we don’t want to hurt economic development or the quality of life for people, either,'' he said.

Alloco acknowledged that protecting seagrass beds is a reasonable compromise "so we have fisheries for future generations to enjoy off our coast.''

"I just hope we don’t find out later it wasn’t necessary, or worse‚ it was detrimental,'’ he said.