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DeSantis approves aquatic preserve off Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties

The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve is Florida's first new aquatic preserve in 32 years.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has approved the creation the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve to protect seagrass off the coast of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties.

The preserve, which spans 800 square miles of coastal waters, is the first new aquatic preserve created in Florida in 32 years.

As the 42nd aquatic preserve in the state, the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve will protect 400,000 acres of seagrass in the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass bed.

Seagrass beds serve as a measure of water quality and provide habitat for marine life. A single acre of seagrass can support nearly 40,000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates, including lobster and shrimp.

Seagrass-dependent activities, including fishing and scalloping, generate $600 million each year for the three counties.

The preserve also includes marine habitats such as salt marsh, mangroves, oyster reefs and hard bottom. These habitats provide nursery grounds and shelter for species including manatees, sea turtles, redfish, grouper and tarpon.

The aquatic preserve has been named an Outstanding Florida Water, the state’s highest protection for water quality.

Florida lawmakers passed legislation in March to create the preserve with nearly unanimous support.

Criticism of the bill centered on the preserve’s potential to limit long-term dredging projects. Besides protecting seagrass beds, the creation of the preserve limits dredging, well drilling, and installing structures other than docks.

Boating, fishing, and scalloping will still be allowed in the preserve.

Related: RELATED: Legislators okay seagrass protection zone for Pasco, Hernando, Citrus

The Pew Charitable Trusts began pursuing the project two years ago by talking to business owners and fishermen on the gulf coast.

“We wanted to understand what that seagrass meadow meant to them, what sort of threats they saw on the horizon,” said Holly Binns, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean and coastal conservation work in the Southeast. “The more they talked about their worries, the more we knew we needed to get ahead of this now.”

Concerns included increasing development along the coast leading to an increase in runoff pollution that could fuel red tide and algae blooms, disrupting the seagrass.

After mounting community support, business owners raised the proposal at legislation meetings in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco.

Binns credits them with the project’s success.

“This wouldn’t have happened without the broad base of support from businesses and the fishing community,” said Binns.

Preserves on the Gulf Coast will now stretch from Big Bend area to Tampa Bay.

“Seagrass is an economic engine for the tri-county region,” said Binns. “The aquatic preserve will protect that resource so those businesses can continue to thrive for years to come.