CRYSTAL RIVER — With expanded manatee protections due to expire at the end of March, an environmental watchdog group is pressing federal officials to make the changes stronger and permanent.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility last year threatened to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not enforcing its own rules in Crystal River, the only place the federal government sanctions swimming with manatees. The group said the endangered mammals were being driven out of the warm-water springs they need in cold weather.
Partially in response to PEER and because of last year's record manatee dieoff due to cold stress, the agency instituted an emergency rule this winter declaring all of Kings Bay a manatee refuge. That gave the FWS the power to expand sanctuaries and better enforce manatee interaction rules.
But the new rules, which took effect in November and are set to expire at the end of March, have not gone far enough, said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch.
FWS representatives were unavailable for comment on Monday, which was a federal holiday.
PEER wants to expand the no-entry sanctuaries, prohibit diving underwater and allow only a set number of swimmers near manatees at one time. The group also wants to end the high-speed summer sport zone in Kings Bay, make the rules year-round, and create a list of prohibited activities such as feeding or riding manatees.
PEER also wants a canal system that begins at Kings Bay Bridge and goes into Magnolia Springs and Three Sisters Springs designated a manatee sanctuary. The shallow corridor that allows swimmers into Kings Spring in the Banana Island sanctuary should be closed to swimmers and become part of that sanctuary, as well.
Marty Senetra of Bird's Underwater dive shop in Crystal River called a quota system for swimmers redundant because closing Kings Spring, the canal system and Three Sisters Springs would cripple all manatee-related businesses in the area.
"That would, in effect, shut down the manatee industry here, but also the hospitality industry in Crystal River and Homosassa Springs," he said.
Senetra acknowledged that the sanctuaries the FWS expanded in November helped manatees and businesses. The bigger sanctuaries mean that manatees that don't want to interact with humans can stay in their havens; those that want to swim out to interact with swimmers can do so.
PEER insists it does not want to end the practice of human-manatee interaction, just make it safer for the sea cows.
"Tourists should be able to swim with manatees but not abuse them," Ruch said in a news release. "The Fish & Wildlife Service needs to take a series of firm but common sense steps to address a problem that has gotten out of control."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.