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 email@example.com.