PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (SNN TV) — The federal government is putting $16.8 million into 10 research projects along the Gulf Coast, $1,287,506 of which is coming straight to the Suncoast for one of the largest estuaries in Florida.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's RESTORE Science Program's mission is to carry out research, observation, and monitoring to support the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem, fish stocks, fish habitat, and the recreational, commercial, and charter-fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida Fish and Wildlife research administrator Courtney Saari has her own memories in Charlotte County waters.

"I’ll never forget catching the biggest snook of my life. I'm pretty sure I shed a few tears our of joy and pain for catching that big fish," Saari said with a laugh.

So protecting Charlotte Harbor's waters isn't just a project; it's personal. And NOAA's money is designed to give agencies such as the FWC more resources to do it.

"We’re looking to restore and conserve habitat for juvenile tarpon and snook," Saari said.

Juvenile tarpon and snook add "hundreds of millions of dollars" to the local economy, according to Saari.

The project will take place in multiple parts through 2028. FWC said snook and tarpon depend on wetlands. The fish spend the first year or two of their life far back in the coastal ponds, protected from marine predators.

The fish can't grow to be big if they're dying or unhealthy because their habitat is encroached on by urban development or nutrient runoff, so studying juvenile tarpon and snook are important.

"We’re going to be doing some [hydrologic] modeling to see how stormwater runoff comes off of the land and into the estuary," Saari said.

FWC will have biologists in the waters catching fish with nets to make sure the habitat is healthy. The agency will also:

  • Use a coastal habitat evolution model to predict habitat changes with sea level rise,
  • Develop a habitat vulnerability index (GIS mapping of known nursery sites) to prioritize habitats for management, conservation, and restoration,
  • Create a map-based decision-support tool to be incorporated into 1) county land use planning for zoning, land conservation, and decisions on stormwater infrastructure and development and 2) state habitat conservation and restoration planning (in 2028 and 2029)

And they'll be doing it in an area the agency hasn't been able to study as much.

"We’ve been focused in the main bodies of the estuaries," said Saari. "This project is unique because we’re getting back into the tidal creeks and the headwaters, and we're getting at an area that we haven't researched adequately in the past."