New Nature Coast Preserve

The following article was published in the March / April issue of Florida Sport Fishing Magazine

The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Initiative

Gary Rankel

An exciting new Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Initiative (HB 1061) has been introduced into the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate by Representative Ralph Massullo and Senator Ben Albritton, respectively.  It’s a rather rare piece of proposed legislation in that it benefits fish and wildlife resources, sport and commercial fisheries, the environment, outdoor recreation, tourism, cultural resources, job creation and local economies along the Nature Coast, all at the same time.  More than 100 business owners in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, including scores of fishing captains, boat dealers, tackle shop owners, tourism operators, restaurant owners and marine supply dealers have joined in signing a letter of support for this bill.

The bill was filed at the urging of constituents who recognize the rich biodiversity of the region’s coastal wetlands, their value in protecting water quality, their effectiveness as a buffer from storms and rising sea levels, and the biological and aesthetic value of preserving associated salt marshes, seagrasses, mangroves and other inshore habitats in a relatively pristine condition.  It has been referred to the appropriate committees for consideration during the 2020 Florida Legislative session. 

The proposed area, located between Yankeetown and Anclote, would be added to the 41 existing preserves encompassing about 2.2 million acres established under the Florida Aquatic Preserve Act of 1975.  It would circumvent the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve near Crystal River, and close the gap between the existing Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve to the north and the Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve to the south, thereby extending protection to a 60 mile contiguous stretch of outstanding submerged lands and unspoiled habitats along the Nature Coast for future generations to enjoy.

The bill would greatly limit dredging, filling and other alterations of physical conditions in the submerged area, while ensuring that all lawful, traditional public uses such as fishing and boating would be allowed.  It authorizes the Board of Trustees created by the Act to conduct restoration and enhancement activities within the preserve and its tributaries, and stabilize shorelines which may be contributing to turbidity by planting natural vegetation, in conjunction with the neighboring counties and State Department of Environmental Protection.  

This area comprises countless numbers and acres of near pristine salt marsh, mangroves, oyster bars, hard bottom substrates, sea grass meadows and canopied creeks, supporting important bird rookeries and nursery areas for a wide variety of marine life, including endangered species, while providing outstanding fishing, paddling, boating and other water related activities so critical to the enjoyment of residents and tourists alike.  Nearby communities depend on a healthy, unspoiled coastal ecosystem along the Nature Coast to sustain viable economies.  

Tourists from all over the world visit the Nature Coast to observe and swim with manatees in the winter.  In the summer, the area fills up with snorkelers looking to experience the area’s underwater version of an Easter egg hunt for scallops.  Bookings for guided fishing trips, including those targeting the renowned tarpon and shallow water grouper, fill up far in advance of season openings.  Paddling and eco-tourism clubs springing up all over central Florida, including many in growing retirement communities, frequent the area hoping for close encounters with dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, rays, wading birds, shore birds and other marine life in gorgeous, secluded settings.  Returning home with fresh fish for dinner is a bonus.   

In other parts of the state, years of water mismanagement and nutrient rich runoff have impacted aquatic and marine resources.  Toxic, guacamole-like summer slime events have become the new normal.  Recurring and increasingly persistent red tide blooms have exacerbated the problem.  Reports of dead zones, fish kills and even human health alerts are not uncommon.  In some cases, people are being told to stay off the water to avoid noxious odors and fumes in the surrounding air that can cause nausea and dizziness.  Bait shops, tackle stores and other coastal businesses have closed their doors.  Key sport fisheries have been closed to harvest to facilitate the recovery of depleted stocks. 

Boaters and anglers in some of the state’s larger metropolitan areas hoping to escape the rat race and spend relaxing weekends on neighboring waterways are increasingly being met with traffic jams, not only on the highways, but at boat ramps and on the water as well.  Finding spots of their own to float their boats and wet a line have become a challenge.  Ditto for sight fishing as they’re often lucky to see bottom in two feet of water.     

Waterways along the lightly populated Nature Coast haven’t escaped the effects of nutrient overloading and reduced spring flows, however, they haven’t experienced the widespread pollution, recurrent algae blooms, health alerts and resultant die offs of marine resources seen in other areas.  Thanks to the efforts of various volunteer and action groups, conservation lands have been set aside and measures are being taken to restore bays and rivers to their former condition.  Fish stocks seem to be doing fine and water quality is improving.  Even the manatees in Kings Bay seem to be happier munching on their new found salad bar created through a successful sea grass replanting program. 

For all the reasons mentioned above, I sense that communities along the Nature Coast may be in for an impending influx of folks seeking new places to live, work and play.  The Suncoast Parkway extension, now underway, will make some of those towns more desirable bedroom communities and visitor destinations.  Passage of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve Initiative will go a long way toward maintaining the biological diversity and aesthetic values of this coastal region, and provide for enduring tourism oriented, nature based economies. 

Representative Massullo and Senator Albritton deserve our gratitude for championing this legislation.