Michael Shirley, the Northeast Florida Region administrator with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), called the new 455,000-acre Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve a “treasure.” Now begins to work of guarding that treasure.

The Preserve, created last year when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 1061, includes state waters off Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. For 32 years these waters represented an unprotected “gap” in the Florida Aquatic Preserve Act of 1975, but no more.

The DEP held its first public meeting (virtually online) to take comments on how the state should manage the preserve and to answer questions. The comments will be used to shape policy discussions and action plans, and will be included in the next online meeting scheduled for Nov. 30. For more information, visit https://floridadep.gov/rcp/aquatic-preserve

Various speakers involved with the protection program spoke, and it was emphasized that an “adaptive management” style will be employed, meaning the effectiveness of policies and tactics will be continuously monitored and the management plan modified if “any phase of the plan is not working,” said Earl Pearson, a DEP planner.

Pearson also noted that the objective is to “preserve” and not “restore,” explaining that the job of maintaining the health of the huge region of sea grass is easier compared to restoration.

Among concerns raised were whether the preserve would mean more regulations like the creation of no-motor and no-wake zones, more red tape when it comes county projects like building or enhancing artificial reefs, or residents seeking permits to build docks or seawalls.

Shirley said there should be no concerns in those areas.

“Our goal is to be compatible with the communities,” he said, adding “it’s a balancing act.”

Alexandra Kuchta, DEP press secretary, answered in more detail following the meeting. She said of the possibility of no-wake zones being established in the preserve, “at this time it is not contemplated.” She went on to say educational awareness efforts about prop scaring and “informational buoys are more likely to be the first steps.”

She also said most residents along the coast will not be impacted by new rules, as privately-owned lands are excluded from the preserve, as the boundary consists of the state-owned submerged lands lying west of the westernmost shorelines.

Bait shrimpers always have concerns when the issue is protection of sea grass, as their nets drag the grass bottom to capture shrimp.

Kuchta said, “generally speaking, management plans for aquatic preserves do not regulate fisheries,” but she left room that anything that damages the grass beds is within the purview of the state, as “the protection of this habitat and regulation of clean water is essential to sea grass; this ecosystem supports a variety of activities, including harvesting shrimp and scallops.”

Regarding ongoing reef projects off Hernando County under a grant from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill trust fund, Shirley said these projects as “grandfathered” and will not be impacted.

Other concerns raised about human impact due to increased recreational scalloping in Hernando and Citrus. Pasco currently has just a 10-day mini scalloping season, but Hernando and Citrus waters are opened to scalloping for almost three months, drawing thousands of visitors to the coast to hunt for the tasty shellfish.

DEP officials said the impact of scalloping is on the priority list of concerns and it will be evaluated, with the approach to balance public use with protecting natural resources.

Chris Anastasiou, chief scientist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, attended the online meeting and encouraged DEP to work closely with SWFMD’s sea grass mapping program and to use its sea grass maps created by periodic aerial photography surveys, to help monitor the health of the Preserve.

“I’m very excited to work with the Aquatic Preserve,” he said, adding that while the maps show the increase or decrease in the sea grass fields, if scientific analysis of the grass beds themselves by DEP scientists is included, a better understanding of the health of the grass will be possible.

“Maps don’t show the quality of the grass,” he said.

Other potential support from SWFWMD includes monitoring of the quality of freshwater that runs into the Gulf, including water from rivers like the Weeki Wachee, Cotee and Anclote rivers.