Federal officials bowed to pressure from Citrus County businesses and state legislators Thursday, setting up new manatee protection rules in Kings Bay that will still allow boaters to go 25 mph in part of the bay during 10 weeks in the summer.
Until now, federal officials allowed boaters to do 35 mph through the bay in the summer, so this is a tighter restriction than before. But it's not as tough as what they originally proposed: forcing boaters to go slow throughout the bay in the summer, as is required in winter.
"It's better than what we had," said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, noting he still had concerns.
To Jewel Lamb, it's still too much. Lamb, who leads a group called Save Crystal River, has helped spearhead opposition to the proposed new rules and is unhappy with the compromise.
"We still stand firm that it's an overreach of the federal government," she said, promising to push for Congress to block any funding for implementing the new rules.
Kings Bay, the one place in Florida where humans who swim with the manatees are allowed to touch them, has for the past two years been the center of a renewed battle over how much protection for manatees is too much, a debate that has drawn in everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the tea party. That argument has been going on in Citrus County since Jacques Cousteau featured Kings Bay's manatees in his 1972 documentary Forgotten Mermaids.
When the first Kings Bay sanctuary rules were put in place in 1980, there were about 100 manatees there. Now federal officials estimate that more than 550 manatees use the bay year-round, and in the winter more than 100,000 people show up in Crystal River to see them.
Of the 16 boat-related manatee deaths that have occurred in Kings Bay, 13 happened in the past decade, and half of those were in the summer.
"I don't know of a more dangerous place for manatees in the summer," Rose said last year.
Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed declaring all of Kings Bay and its adjoining water bodies a year-round manatee refuge, allowing the federal agency to establish closed areas or other rules anywhere in the bay as situations arose.
For instance, federal officials could establish no-entry areas lasting up to two weeks if a cold front hit before the manatee season began, or after the manatee season closed, to prevent manatees from being harassed in Kings Bay.
The most controversial part of the proposed rules called for extending the wintertime slow-speed rules into the summer. Four years ago, swimmer and manatee safety issues had prompted a waterfront advisory board to recommend the agency extend the slow speeds year-round, and the Crystal River City Council voted unanimously to forward the recommendations to the wildlife service.
But when federal officials proposed the new limits, business groups and local officials objected. They complained that would ruin summertime recreation in an area where the economy is closely tied to the use of local waterways.
Tea party members showed up at a public hearing to picket the proposal. "We cannot elevate nature above people," said Edna Mattos, leader of the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots. "That's against the Bible and the Bill of Rights."
Some residents opposed to the proposal even called for shunning any wildlife service employees spotted in the community.
State legislators stepped in. Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, R-Lecanto, sponsored a resolution that passed both houses asking Congress to intervene and block the implementation of the rules. In Washington, U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Spring Hill, has said he wanted to prohibit the agency from spending any money to implement the protection plan.
Asked Thursday if he's satisfied with the compromise, Nugent said, "My goal all along has been to get Fish and Wildlife to listen to the concerns of the local officials. The changes from the proposed rule … demonstrate that we've had some success."
However, Nugent said he wanted to hear what local officials think. County Commission Chairman Dennis Damato declined to comment.
Because of all the objections, the wildlife agency backed off its summertime speed limit, instead carving out a 10-week period when boaters can go up to 25 mph in the daytime in a section in the northern end of Kings Bay.
In an extremely brief news conference, Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor Dave Hankla said biologists looked at data on where manatees were seen from May through August and determined that, as areas of Kings Bay go, that one was the area they stayed in the least.
Hankla did not explain why they cut May and part of August from the summer schedule, or how they determined that 25 mph would be the allowable speed.
Rose said he still had concerns about the area where boats can go 25 mph because "all the manatees that have to go anywhere else in the bay have to go through that area to get there."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]