With technical support from Florida Sea Grant, Hernando County has become Florida’s first county to add a long-term management strategy for its entire marine and coastal zone to the county’s comprehensive plan.
“To my knowledge this is the most comprehensive and explicit treatment of marine resources in a local government comprehensive plan in Florida,” said Tom Ankersen, Florida Sea Grant’s legal specialist who led the initiative.
Typically in Florida, a county’s comprehensive plan provides long-range guidance on dry land or shoreline issues to keep growth and development in balance among competing interests, Ankersen said. Management of marine submerged lands has not been factored into the planning equation.
Hernando County’s comprehensive plan will now address activities in submerged habitats up to 9 nautical miles out from the county’s coast, where state waters end and federal waters begin.
“It extends literally from shoreline to state line,” Ankersen said. “We were unable to find any similar instances of this in Florida.”
Hernando County is located just north of the Tampa Bay metropolitan area along the Gulf of Mexico. The county has historically been rural with significant agricultural activity and limestone mining. The economy is also boosted by a large, nature-based recreation and tourism industry dependent on extensive tracts of undeveloped wilderness and near pristine habitats along its 18-mile Gulf coast.
For more than a year, Ankersen and a team comprised of legal students from the University of Florida Levin College of Law and Sea Grant extension faculty have been engaged with Hernando County officials in the development of approaches for sustaining and improving its marine environments.
In March, the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners voted to amend the coastal management element of its comprehensive plan with recommendations from the team’s final report.
The report offers a blueprint for the restoration, enhancement and management of the county’s marine waters. It is focused on shoreline stabilization, oyster reef restoration, artificial reefs, hardbottom and seagrass, healthy commercial and recreational fisheries, and navigation and water access.
It also provides a 15-year, science-based spending framework for penalty money paid into the RESTORE Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund by BP after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Ankerson said. The money will now be used specifically for marine enhancement projects that coincide with goals in the plan.
“According to Hernando County, the plan has already been helpful in facilitating restoration permitting and in establishing RESTORE Act funding priorities,” Ankersen said.
The authors of Hernando County’s marine area plan are Alexandra Barshel and Samantha Sanders, third-year legal students in the UF law school’s environmental and land-use law program.
The team also includes Brittany Hall-Scharf, Florida Sea Grant agent with UF/IFAS Extension in Hernando County; Keith Kolasa, manager of Hernando County’s aquatics and waterways divisions; and Emma Pistole, a master’s student at the University of Florida studying fisheries and aquatic science. Micheal Allen, director of the UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station served with Ankersen as faculty advisors on the project.
Hall-Scharf, who has been instrumental with on-the-ground support and in the drafting and editing process, said the effort demonstrates how Sea Grant professionals apply science-based solutions to problems that affect coastal residents, businesses and communities.
“Working on this plan has helped three UF students gain experience and prepare them for future careers,” Hall-Scharf said.
“It was also a great way to bring awareness to the marine and coastal resources of one of Florida’s communities, and show what Florida Sea Grant agents and specialists bring to the table. The simple things we do every day in our jobs have big impacts on the future of our natural resources.”
She added that team member Keith Kolasa will put forth a formal resolution to the county commissioners to adopt the entire 65-page Hernando County Strategic Marine Area Plan report as an official reference document within the county comprehensive plan.”
“As a result of this plan, Hernando County has included funding for the collection of baseline data to fill data gaps that currently exist for our expansive areas of hard bottom and seagrass beds,” Kolasa said.
“It’s important that we understand and document the existing biodiversity and community structure so that we can make informed management decisions as we move forward with enhancement projects such as artificial reefs.”
Six main goals intended to sustain and improve the county’s marine environment, tourism industry and water access points are addressed in the plan.
The goals are:
- To ensure that all estuarine shoreline interfaces in Hernando County contribute to the ecological health and resiliency of the County’s coastal and estuarine ecosystems.
- To maintain, restore and create a robust system of nearshore oyster reefs that contributes to estuarine health, productive fisheries and coastal resiliency.
- To enhance Hernando County’s fisheries by maximizing available structure for recreationally important fish species at all life history stages through artificial reef deployment.
- To maintain robust economically and ecologically sustainable recreational and commercial fisheries.
- To develop, maintain and enhance a resilient program of land-based and in-water maritime access infrastructure to support the sustainable commercial and recreational use of the marine and estuarine waters of Hernando County.
- To ensure the ecological integrity of Hernando County’s unique assemblage of seagrass bed habitats and interspersed hardbottom.