Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Feds want permanent manatee refuge, more restrictions in Kings Bay

All of Kings Bay, famed as the place in Florida where humans can swim with and even touch the manatees, should be permanently designated as a manatee refuge, federal officials announced Tuesday.

Swimming with the manatees would still be allowed, but the new proposal would restrict boat speeds year-round in the Citrus County waterway.

That would end the controversial summer water sport zone, which allowed fast-moving boats to zoom through the area where manatees are increasingly found year-round, not just in winter.

"I know a lot of people will be disappointed with that," said Diane Oestreich, co-owner of Bird's Underwater, a popular ecotour operation in Crystal River. "But every time I'm out there, I see manatees grazing where boats are going up and down."

The agency's announcement, published in the Federal Register and open for public comment, pointed out that of the 16 boat-related manatee deaths known to have occurred in Kings Bay, 13 were in the last decade. Seven occurred between May 1 and Aug. 30.

Citrus County's tourist development director, Marla Chancey, said she didn't foresee much of an economic impact from making the boaters slow down: "People can still run their boats. They just can't run them as fast."

Citrus County's economic future depends on maintaining a healthy manatee population that draws tourists, she explained.

"If we protect them and keep them safe, we keep our tourism and marketing business safe as well," she said.

A 2006 evaluation documented 14,304 boats registered in Citrus County — 13,283 power boats and 1,021 non-power boats, including 903 kayaks and canoes. Their economic impact was estimated to be $104 million, federal wildlife officials said, but the agency could not tell how much of that was tied to viewing manatees and how much involved fishing, skiing and other recreational pursuits.

Tourists began flocking to Crystal River to see the manatees after a biologist named Daniel "Woodie" Hartman, who had spent years studying the Kings Bay manatees, teamed up with Jacques Cousteau on a 1972 documentary called Forgotten Mermaids.

The documentary, presented as an episode of the critically acclaimed program The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, was seen by millions of viewers around the globe.

Now manatees are so central to the economy that manatees adorn the badges of the Crystal River police force as well as the sign at the city limits. Every year they are celebrated with a Manatee Festival.

Parts of Kings Bay were designated as manatee sanctuaries in 1980. At the time, about 100 manatees were using the network of mangrove-fringed springs, and the number of tourists viewing manatees was estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 per year.

Today, federal officials estimate that more than 550 manatees use Kings Bay, and in the winter more than 100,000 people show up in Crystal River to see them.

As the number of manatee-obsessed tourists has grown, so has the number of complaints about tourists — and sometimes tour-boat operators — harassing the manatees. One manatee activist posted to YouTube footage of a tour operator grabbing a baby manatee that had been trying to swim to its mother and then holding it up for his customers to take pictures.

"The number of manatees using Kings Bay throughout the year has simply outgrown the capacity of existing protected areas, and human use of the bay has increased beyond the impacts originally considered when the existing protections were created," said Dave Hankla, who oversees the agency's endangered species office in Jacksonville.

If approved, the proposed refuge would make permanent a set of temporary rules posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last winter. The rules enabled the federal agency to establish closed areas or other rules anywhere in the bay, as situations arise.

For instance, federal officials can establish temporary no-entry areas lasting up to two weeks if a cold front hits before the manatee season begins, or after the manatee season has closed, to prevent manatees from being harassed in Kings Bay.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has no data showing fewer manatees were hit or killed after the emergency rules went into effect, said spokesman Chuck Underwood. But agency officials did see an improvement in compliance with manatee protection rules in general, he said, "and a higher number of tour boat operators were doing a really good job of self-policing."

The new permanent manatee refuge would include all of Kings Bay, its tributaries and adjoining water bodies upstream of the confluence of Kings Bay and Crystal River. It includes new rules for the popular Three Sisters Springs area, forbidding scuba and overnight entry during the same time of the year as sanctuaries are enacted.

The agency is accepting comments on the proposal through Aug. 22. A public hearing is scheduled for July 7 at the College of Central Florida's Citrus campus, 3800 S Lecanto Highway, in Lecanto.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Feds want permanent manatee refuge, more restrictions in Kings Bay 06/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 11:03pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Florida State out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2011

    Blogs

    Florida State's first 0-2 start since 1989 has led to another low.

  2. From care center to purgatory to 'hellhole': How 11 frail elders died after Irma

    Hurricanes

    As she got ready to say goodbye to her mother at the Hollywood Hills nursing home, Rose Wyda's heart was sick. Hurricane Irma had been gone for nearly 48 hours, but the trail of shattered trees and broken, hissing power lines the storm left behind was still dangerously apparent. And the nursing home was part of the …

  3. Bucs' Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson kneel during national anthem

    Bucs

    Bucs receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson both kneeled during the national anthem in protest before Sunday's game at the Vikings, two days after President Donald Trump made critical remarks about NFL …

    Bucs receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson both kneeled during the national anthem in protest before Sunday's game at the Vikings. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
  4. Authorities ID man killed in Clearwater Beach boating crash; Girl, 4, still in critical condition

    Briefs

    An Altamonte Springs man died and a 4-year-old girl remains in critical condition Sunday morning after their personal watercraft collided with a boat in the Intracoastal Waterway near Clearwater Beach just before 5 p.m.

  5. 'If anyone can hear us … help.' Puerto Rico's mayors describe 'horror in the streets'

    World

    SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - In the northern Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja, the floodwaters reached more than 10 feet. Stranded residents screamed "save me, save me," using the lights in their cellphones to help rescue teams find them in the darkness, the town's mayor said.