The Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustees hosted a public meeting Monday night February 3rd at the Pensacola Bay Center at 201 E. Gregory St. An open house began at 6:00 PM with large poster board presentations on tripods with information describing the projects along the Gulf Coast for the third phase of NRDA funding. After the Gulf Coast was impacted by the winter ice and snow storm last week, it was decided by the Trustee Council that the Pensacola meeting will be the only in-person public meeting scheduled in Florida. Before any of the proposed projects are finalized, the projects are going through a 60-day public comment period that now runs through Feb. 19th.
There are 44 projects in the Phase 3 Early Restoration Plan for a total of $627,000,000 which includes the proposed $19 million fish hatchery at the historical Bruce Beach. This third phase of projects also includes a $12 million artificial reef creation and restoration regional project and a $10 million restoration and recreation project in Okaloosa County. Other projects include beach nourishment efforts, habitat restoration, oyster reef and dune restoration and increased recreation opportunities in the form of boat ramps, beach access points and park improvements.
The hatchery was identified under the title of the “Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Enhancement Center” with the major goal of raising highly sought after sport fish. Mayor Ashton Hayward made very clear his endorsement of the hatchery. Several environmentalists voiced opposition to the project. Christian Wagley, an environmentalist active in local restoration efforts cited research of other hatchery projects in California and Texas. He stated that “they have not been able to ensure that they (the hatcheries) have enhanced the stock of fish.” In other words, the hatcheries had no more impact on enhancing the stock than the natural process of fish growing in the wild. Wagley also serves as the environmental representative on the Escambia County RESTORE Act Advisory Committee.
The fish hatchery’s location has, also, raised some concerns for African American heritage preservation. The City of Pensacola built and managed the municipal swimming pool for Black community access for swimming classes and recreation activities at Bruce Beach during the late 1950’s and the 1960’s. The pool was a very popular recreational spot for children and adults and served as a way to stop the accidental drownings in Pensacola Bay off the beach’s shore. Located in south downtown Pensacola off of Main Street the area was known as the “Tan Yard” named after a shoe tanning factory located in the neighborhood. A proposal for a possible museum or historical exhibit was presented at the public meeting to be incorporated in the project’s site plan. It is envisioned that educational experiences for school age youth resulting from environmental and historical research would be generated.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will oversee the project. Gil McCrae, Executive Director of the commission was present at the civic center and discussed the role of the project with concerned citizens. McCrae has previously stated that the hatchery project is much more than raising fish. He stated that the Florida State agency is also creating an outreach and education center where local citizens and visitors can learn more about the importance of healthy coastal ecosystems to Florida’s economy and quality of life.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are co-Trustees for the state of Florida in the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment. Other members of the Trustee Council include the U.S. Department of Interior, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Trustees from the other affected Gulf States (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas). The Trustee Council represents the public interest and works together to assess the injury to natural resources and develop plans to restore the injured resources through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.
In addition to speaking at meetings, hundreds of citizens filed comments by mail and online. Public comment can be submitted by visiting www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov. The public comment period on the Draft Phase III ERP/PEIS has been extended through Feb. 19.