State lawmakers are considering a bill (HB 1061 / SB 1042 ) to protect the largest seagrass bed in the Gulf of Mexico. There are 400,000 acres of underwater plants in the Nature Coast, but the coastline of Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties has not been preserved.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Massullo (R-Beverly Hills) in the House and by Sen.Ben Albritton (R-Bartow), would create the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, which would help to protect the natural ecosystems in the area, as well as maintain the water quality.
According to Pew Charitable Trusts, the preserve would also help local businesses. Seagrass provides a home for many marine animals, which makes the area good for manatee-watching or fishing. Outdoor activities produce about 10,000 jobs, support half a million businesses and generates more than $600 million for the region each year.
Consequently, more than 100 local businesses have signed a letter to support the bill.
However, the Tampa Bay Times reports that there is some opposition.
"I loved the concept until I read the bill,'' said Capt. Wendy Longman of Windsong Charters in New Port Richey.
"There are some good things in here, but the last thing we want to do, in my opinion, is over-regulate,'' said Pasco Commissioner Mike Wells Jr., also a licensed boat captain.
"There are so many things in here that are negative,'' said Commissioner Jack Mariano. "This clearly is not in our best interest.''
"I love conservation, but tread softly,'' said Hernando Commissioner Wayne Dukes.
Other lawmakers are concerned with the prohibition of some activities that are the backbone of coastal economies, such as scalloping or dredging.
Such concerns were discussed during a Citrus County Commission meeting Thursday.
“There are no additional requirements as relates to the construction of a new boat ramp, construction of artificial reefs or new signage,” Alex Reed, the director of the Coastal Resiliency and Florida’s Beach Management Programs, said in an email to commissioners. “You may have to get a permit which would delay the process for a couple of months.”
In addition, the new preserve would mean restrictions on dredging to protect the ecosystem.
“A dredging for public navigation projects can be authorized but must be clearly in the public interest. Impacts to submerged resources will be taken into account,” Reed explained. “For this determination, dredging for new access channels relating to commercial marinas is prohibited in areas that contain significant submerged resources, and strongly discouraged in areas with a lower density of submerged resources.”
Traditional activities such as boating and fishing would still be allowed in the designated areas.
The Citrus County commissioners approved a letter of support for the bill, and will follow up with a resolution saying the same thing.
The bill is currently in the House State Affairs Committee and the Senate Rules Committee.
If the Nature Coast Aquatic bill passes, it would become the 42nd such preserve in Florida and part of the 2.2 million acres protected along the Gulf shore. The bill would take effect July 1, 2020.