CRYSTAL RIVER — People who enjoy swimming with manatees in Citrus County's coastal waters don't need to pack away their masks and snorkels.
Federal wildlife officials have denied an environmental watchdog's request to end the popular but controversial activity.
However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did concede that there are a growing number of complaints of manatee harassment because some swimmers aren't following the rules.
Agency officials said they take harassment seriously and will work with the community, state wildlife officials and other interested partners to strengthen manatee protections. That could involve more manatee sanctuaries and other regulatory changes.
That's not good enough for Christine Erickson, staff counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which sought to ban swimming with manatees.
"What we find most troubling is that they contradict themselves a lot" in the response, she said.
The federal agency agrees that swimmers don't always follow the rules and that the term "harassment" needs better definition.
However, the agency's response noted that after increased observations in the area, "officers identified very few events that warranted the issuance of citations."
"Yet we have extensive evidence to the contrary," Erickson said, referring to hours of video shot in the area showing swimmers hitting, kicking and chasing the endangered manatees out of their critical habitats.
Erickson said his group will now seek federal records to back up the agency's claims about the lack of harassment, proof that letting businesses run the manatee encounters cuts harassment, and specific actions it will take to protect manatees.
If those requests don't satisfy the organization's concerns, "it's highly likely that we will start preparing litigation," Erickson said.
Save the Manatee Club does not want to ban swimming with manatees, but the group does want more regulation of it. The club wants swimmers to stay at least 10 feet from manatees, to ban touching, to prohibit swim fins and to require flotation devices so swimmers stay at the water's surface.
Pat Rose, the club's executive director, said his group also is working with agencies and partners on new rules and expanded sanctuaries.
"We're adamant about stopping the harassment that we still think is out of control and we are working to that end," Rose said.
Until the current problems are fixed, Rose said, there will always be the threat that someone is going to push to end the lucrative manatee swim experience.
"People who are interested in the economic issue here need to know that this will not go away until manatees are not being harassed on a consistent basis," he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.