LECANTO — Residents who live, work and play near an area of Kings Bay where manatees congregate year-round don't find much to like about a new federal proposal that would ban fast-moving boats in a popular summer water sport zone.
At a public hearing Thursday at the College of Central Florida, representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled a plan to permanently establish the November 2010 emergency designation of a federal manatee refuge.
Under the proposal, watercraft in Kings Bay would have to operate at slow speeds year-round, and would be further restricted in sensitive areas such as Three Sisters Springs.
Many residents who spoke at the hearing said they were skeptical that the restrictions would significantly reduce watercraft-related manatee deaths. They said they thought the proposal would lead to unsafe conditions on Crystal River's crowded waterways.
Citrus County Commission chairman Dennis Damato criticized the plan for being shortsighted, saying that it had been put together without local input.
"Citrus County has always been at the forefront of manatee protection," he said. "It would have made more sense for the federal government to work with all of us in a cooperative effort."
Of about 50 people who spoke, few seemed to disagree.
"It's not about if you are for manatees, or if you're against manatees," Crystal River vice mayor Ron Kitchen said. "I think everyone who lives here can agree that they are an integral part of where we live."
Crystal River resident Jim Tessel said he worried that banning higher-speed boats from Kings Bay would force more and more traffic into the already congested main channel of Crystal River.
"You're just asking for a huge disaster," he said. "No manatee is worth that."
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.
Today, federal officials estimate that more than 550 manatees use the bay regularly, and in the winter more than 100,000 people show up in Crystal River to see them.
The agency's announcement, published last month in the Federal Register, pointed out that of the 16 boat-related manatee deaths known to have occurred in Kings Bay, 13 were in the past decade.
Seven occurred between May 1 and Aug. 30.
The Kings Bay manatee refuge joins an existing federal manatee protection network of 11 sanctuaries and 13 refuges. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will welcome public comment on the proposal until Aug. 22.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]