Manatee with eelgrass

A calf Manatee eats seagrass in a canal near Hunter Springs Run on May 15, 2019, in Crystal River, Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, created the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, the first of its kind in the state in 32 years.

The preserve, which includes Citrus, Pasco and Hernando counties coastal waters, will span about 800 square miles. The area is known for its world-class manatee-watching, scalloping and fishing, according to a press release provided by PEW Charitable Trusts.

Seagrass-dependent activities generate approximately $600 million for the tri-county region annually, provide more than 10,000 jobs and fuel more than 500 businesses.

The new preserve will border several existing ones in Pinellas County, St. Martins Marsh, and the Big Bend, creating a large, contiguous protected area for the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass meadow, as well as a mosaic of marine habitats that include salt marsh, mangroves, oyster reefs and hard bottom. These habitats provide nursery grounds and shelter for manatees, sea turtles, scallops, crabs, shrimp and approximately 70 percent of the species that fishermen target in Florida, including redfish, grouper and tarpon.

The preserve becomes the 42nd in the state and will also be designated as an Outstanding Florida Water, which is the state’s highest level of water quality protection and is assigned to areas worthy of special safeguards.

Florida lawmakers passed legislation in March to create the preserve. The bills, HB 1061 and SB 1042 sponsored by Rep. Ralph Massullo (R-Lecanto) and Sen. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula), garnered widespread support and cleared six legislative committees before approval by the full House and Senate.