The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve (NCAP), designated in 2020 by the Florida Legislature, is Florida’s 42nd aquatic preserve and the state’s first new aquatic preserve in 32 years. It encompasses 800 square miles of coastal waters, including 625 miles of shoreline, along Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, making it the second-largest aquatic preserve in Florida.
Combined, these four preserves protect the largest contiguous seagrass meadow in the Gulf of Mexico and the largest spring-fed seagrass habitat in the world. NCAP also includes mangrove islands, saltmarsh, sponge beds, marine springs, oyster reefs and limestone hardbottom habitats. The karst geology and spring-fed rivers are key influences on the ecosystems and the wildlife that depends on them, including sea turtles and manatees.
The NCAP protects nearly 400,000 acres of seagrass that support valuable working waterfront industries, including fisheries, seafood production and ecotourism. Kayaking, boating, fishing and scalloping are popular recreational opportunities within the NCAP.
The state develops a management plan for each aquatic preserve with input from local governments, residents and other stakeholders in a process that is overseen by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The Governor and Cabinet sitting as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund grant final approval for the plan. The plan’s goal is to maintain the preserve’s biological, scientific and aesthetic value for future generations to enjoy while allowing and improving access for activities such as boating and fishing, birding, kayaking and ecotourism.
In the past year, a series of stakeholder workshops has been held to develop, refine and finalize the draft management plan. After two public meetings to present the draft management plan to the public for comment, and an advisory committee meeting for them to receive those public comments, the plan was further revised. Finally, the plan was submitted to the Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC) and approved on December 9, 2022.
Establishing baseline data at the time of designation is critical in managing and protecting the NCAP. Monitoring programs aim to visit sites repeatedly over time and collect samples that define conditions in the target system (e.g., seagrass beds or oyster reefs).
Since the NCAP was established, 90 water quality monitoring stations have been reestablished and will be monitored on a monthly basis. In addition, annual seagrass monitoring has been reestablished at 100 sites.
The data from these and other future programs will be publicly available via the SEACAR database.
The NCAP is accessible from 14 boat ramps, four state parks, two national wildlife refuges and numerous local parks.
The area of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve has been described as a hub of trade and cultural activities by indigenous people. Shell middens, ceremonial sites and numerous other types of historical and cultural sites have been documented on islands within the NCAP as well as adjacent inland areas with sites dating back 4,000 years.
Wildlife Habitat Description:
The natural resources present within the NCAP are some of the most precious in the state. Within the preserve’s boundaries are complex ecosystems that provide critical habitat for many ecologically, commercially and recreationally important species. Key habitats include seagrass beds, salt marshes and mangrove swamps. The area also contains spring-fed waters from nearby riverways that attract large numbers of the threatened Florida manatee during the winter months when these animals seek thermal refuge in warmer waters.
Florida’s Gulf Coast is characterized by shallow waters that gently slope to deeper levels offshore. These shallow submerged lands offer prime habitat for seagrass.
Seagrasses provide many ecosystem services, including stabilizing sediments, reducing shoreline erosion, sequestering carbon, improving water clarity, and providing habitat for ecologically and economically valuable species. Many species rely on seagrass meadows at some point in their lifecycle. For instance, green sea turtles, a threatened species, rely on seagrasses for food as they graze the shallow flats of the Gulf Coast. Bay scallops are dependent on seagrasses for successful recruitment.
Both seagrass beds and salt marshes serve as nurseries for the young of many other marine species.
Salt marshes in the NCAP also serve as a transitional zone between the estuaries and the uplands, protecting uplands from saltwater intrusion, waves and storm surges while also protecting estuaries by trapping pollutants that flow into the waters from the land.
Mangrove swamps including red and black mangrove species are also prevalent in the NCAP. The fringe forest mangrove swamps of the NCAP provide an important protective barrier between storm and wave energy and the immediate coastline while also reducing the impacts of excess nutrients and other pollutants on water quality.
Mangrove swamps and islands also serve as an important nesting colonies and feeding sites for several bird species in the NCAP.
Outstanding Florida Waters
January 24, 2023 - 10:17am
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The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is the state’s lead agency for environmental management and stewardship – protecting our air, water and land. The vision of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is to create strong community partnerships, safeguard Florida’s natural resources and enhance its ecosystems.