CRYSTAL RIVER — The harassment has got to stop, they say.
It's all too common for the people who flock here to swim with the manatees to ride, chase, disturb or feed the endangered sea creatures.
Nearly 100 business owners, environmentalists and residents packed a community meeting Thursday to talk about how to protect manatees in Crystal River, the only place in the country where the federal government permits swimming with manatees.
They suggested lowering boat speeds, year-round no-entry zones, a required separation distance and vests that prevent diving underwater.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's "listening session," in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was prompted by continued pressure from residents who are upset about the harassment.
The community's ideas will be presented to the full Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission when it meets in Crystal River on June 17 and 18.
Despite the efforts that federal and state agencies have focused on in recent years, including undercover investigations, only one harassment warning has been issued, and one other case is under federal investigation.
Manatees are protected under state and federal laws, but building a harassment case is difficult, officials said. An officer must see a violation occur or convince a prosecutor of a case based on video footage. Defining harassment becomes a judgment call.
"Enforcing manatee harassment laws is not an exact science,'' said Lt. Col. Jim Brown, deputy director of law enforcement for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Harassment is defined as anything that changes the natural behavior of the manatee, especially if it interferes with breeding, feeding or sheltering.
Enforcement also is hampered by a lack of staff, and officers focus on speed zones because boat strikes kill manatees, said Andrew Alois, special agent in charge for the federal agency.
The state and federal agencies work together to provide enforcement.
"That effort is enhanced in Crystal River because this is probably the epicenter of manatee world in the state of Florida,'' Brown said.
Michael Burns of Sunshine River Tours suggested that the same rules his dive shop follows be applied to everyone, including instructions that swimmers float at the surface and stay 6 to 8 feet from manatees.
"Perhaps we have to start setting limits,'' said Elizabeth Fleming of Defenders of Wildlife. She suggested limiting numbers of visitors, something done in other places where tourists were "destroying the resource people were coming to see.''
Inflatable snorkel vests and no flippers would keep people from diving down into the water, where most of the harassment takes place, said Helen Spivey, co-chairwoman of the Save the Manatee Club.
"Crystal River has been referred to as a petting zoo,'' said Tracy Colson, the primary videographer documenting much of the harassment in Crystal River. She said people need to know that the law forbids harassment and that harm and harassment are separate issues.
Others suggested adding new sanctuaries to Kings Bay, making some winter sanctuaries year-round and ending the high-speed summer sport zone, making it idle speed instead.
"We're past the point that we can get by without regulation,'' said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
"What we can do here is get everybody working together to solve this problem because this is solvable,'' Rose said. "We can stop harassing manatees and do it soon enough to maintain the vital economic infusion to this community without manatees having to suffer for it.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.