One might have thought the lush shallow-water sea grass beds off the Pasco and Hernando County coasts, which are essential to a healthy aquatic environment, were protected by state legislation.

They weren’t, at least not until Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1061 on June 29, establishing the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve. The preserve encompasses 400,000 acres of near-shore waters off Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. It’s been 32 years since a new preserve has been created.

The area is known for its expansive grass beds, which are home to a variety of sea creatures, including shrimp, scallops, crabs and small fish. The grass supports game fish and creatures like sea turtles and manatees, and is largely responsible for the area’s reputation for great fishing.

The Florida Aquatic Preserve Act was passed in 1975. The question has been why the Nature Coast zone just created remained an unprotected gap between the Big Bend and Pinellas preserves for so long.

“We’ve asked that question of a lot of people but nobody knows the answer,” said Holly Binns, director of conserving marine life on the Gulf coast with the Pew Charitable Trust, a nonprofit organization that works with the state.

Binns said the work to bring the three-county zone into the fold began when analysis of sensitive marine ecosystems was done a few years ago and vulnerable waters were identified.

“When we overlaid the maps, there was a really clear gap in protection,” Binns said.

Many meetings with county and city officials, business owners and environmental experts ensued, leading to the bill, she said. Care was taken to ensure that the interests of the people who use and depend on the marine environment, as well as local governments, would not be burdened by new restrictions.

Binns said the rules allow for maintenance of existing boat channels and canals, though it would increase scrutiny of new dredging projects. One such project of note in Pasco would be dredging to connect a canal adjacent to county-owned Sunwest Park in Hudson to Filman Bayou to create Gulf access for boaters. Gulf access is seen as important by those promoting housing and resort development at the former limestone mining site. Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano has been a supporter of opening the canal to the Gulf to help the former mine become more attractive to a developer, who might create a resort-style destination with restaurants, shopping, a hotel and homes, Mariano has said. Approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been a stumbling block thus far; the new preserve designation could add additional hurdles.

“According to the Parks Department, the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve legislation will impact any new dredge proposals, but it’s not clear yet exactly how projects will be impacted," said Tambrey Laine, public information officer for Pasco County, on dredging of the canal at Sunwest Park.

Binns said she couldn’t address specific projects, but that in general, Pasco County’s plans for maintenance dredging of boat channels in Hudson and Gulf Harbors to remove sand and silt that has made navigation at low tide difficult should not run into new roadblocks.

Binns said there also are no new restrictions on boaters or commercial shrimping, a process that involves dragging a net through sea grass beds. That said, as part of the new protections, all marine activities that could impact sea grasses will be monitored going forward, said Binns.

For example, if bottom scaring and grass damage from boat props becomes a problem in the preserve, it would be addressed and rules to mitigate damage could be implemented. No-motor zones have been used in many parts of the state to protect sea grass. Ongoing, it will be about balancing protection and use of the marine resource.

“We want to protect but also foster public access,” said Binns.

The preserve designation means there will be regular monitoring of the aquatic zone’s health and water quality, said Binns. As with other zones that fall under the Aquatic Preserve Act, the Nature Coast preserve now has the Outstanding Florida Waters designation and must meet higher water-quality standards.

According to information from Pew, seagrass-dependent species, including valuable fish species like gag grouper, spotted seatrout, redfish, tarpon, stone crab, bay scallops, and shrimp, as well as manatees and sea turtles “support valuable fisheries, seafood production, working waterfronts and eco-tourism that generate approximately $600 million for the tri-county region’s economy annually, provide more than 10,000 jobs and fuel more than 500 businesses.”