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Research shows healthy areas that will benefit manatees and other wildlife, coastal economies, and the new Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve

In a positive development for southwest Florida wildlife, coastal communities, and economies, scientists there recently discovered that some areas gained significant amounts of seagrass from 2016 to 2020.

That’s good news because seagrass helps buffer coastal communities from severe weather, supports economically important activities such as scalloping and fishing, and serves as a vital food source for manatees, which are starving to death in other parts of the state because of pollution-related seagrass die-offs.

After mapping underwater habitats north of Tampa, the Southwest Florida Water Management District found that an offshore area by Anclote Key, an inshore area of Crystal Bay, and Waccasassa Bay east of Cedar Key gained about 5,300 acres of seagrass combined over the four years. The mapping also found that more than half a million acres of seagrass habitat in the region are stable, including much of the seagrass in the state’s new Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, which stretches along the coast from Pasco County through Citrus County.

The new preserve, which the Florida Legislature and Governor Ron DeSantis created in 2020, is designed to protect about 400,000 acres of seagrass, mangrove islands, salt marsh, oyster reefs, sponge meadows, corals, and other habitats. State and community leaders are working on a management plan to guide future conservation and support sustainable public use of the preserve, which covers part of the largest seagrass bed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida Seagrass

The water management district’s regular monitoring of water quality and its ongoing mapping and monitoring of seagrass habitat will play a key role in managing the preserve. The research can help preserve managers, who work for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, determine where seagrass restoration and protection projects should be focused. The research also can inform managers about where seagrass is damaged from careless boaters who run propeller blades too close to the bottom and rip the plants off the seafloor. Seagrass does not grow back easily, and these so-called “prop scars” can be permanent. If preserve managers know where the damage has occurred, they can place informational signs and talk to people to encourage responsible boating, thereby reducing the likelihood of further damage.

Communities near the preserve benefit economically from its healthy seagrass. Fishing, scalloping, manatee-watching, and other water-related activities that depend on robust marine ecosystems generate more than $600 million annually for those communities, provide more than 10,000 jobs, and support about 500 businesses. Community leaders, fishermen, tour guides, business owners, and the public provided input on the preserve’s management plan last fall and will have additional opportunities to comment during a series of meetings that the state plans to schedule for May.

The preserve’s success depends upon ongoing mapping and monitoring, and water management district officials are performing a much-needed service. To learn more about the district’s seagrass project, see its news release and video.