For 40 years tourists have flocked to Crystal River to swim with the manatees in Kings Bay, the only place in the country where you can legally pet one.
But now federal officials, citing "an imminent danger" to manatees, have taken emergency steps to restrict that access between Nov. 15 and March 15.
A notice to be published next week in the Federal Register declares all of Kings Bay to be a manatee refuge. That would give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service power to curtail or even ban boats and swimmers anywhere in the bay where they deem it necessary.
This is not a blanket ban on all boats in Kings Bay, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood said Friday.
But right now the sanctuaries within the bay, where manatees are supposed to be able to flee from intrusive tourists, often cannot contain all the manatees trying to crowd into them, he said. That leaves the ones caught outside vulnerable to being harassed by the tourists.
By declaring the whole bay a refuge, agency employees who notice a problem can quickly move in and post new "no-entry" areas where needed, he said. They can expand the boundaries up to 400 feet outside the current sanctuaries under the new rule.
The emergency rule is designed to give federal officials some flexibility in providing greater protection for the manatees while at the same time still allowing Crystal River's famous tour boats to continue operating, Underwood said.
The rule also lists specific behavior that will be prohibited from now on, including chasing, cornering, riding, poking or standing on manatees. Violators will face a citation and fine.
Helen Spivey, who co-chairs the Save the Manatee Club board of directors, has been pushing for the agency to take this step for two years. She acknowledged the rule would make things more complicated for tour boat operators and limit their ability to show off manatees to paying customers.
Despite Spivey's prediction, one tour boat operator, Mike Millsap, said he did not see anything in the new rules that would hurt his business.
"The big deal would've been if we couldn't touch a manatee anymore," he said. Compared with that, these new rules aren't bad, he said.
Spivey said residents have been appalled at what some tourists have gotten away with, citing one incident in which she saw "divers playing leapfrog, jumping from manatee to manatee."
The emergency rule also delighted the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which this year notified the government of its intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over how manatees are treated in Kings Bay.
Manatees attract an estimated 100,000 visitors to Citrus County every year. They 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.
Tourists began flocking to Crystal River to see them 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.
While the number of manatee tourists has swelled in recent years, so has the number of manatees trying to find refuge in Kings Bay whenever cold weather hits. Some places got so crowded with the endangered animal, Spivey said, "you couldn't drop a dime and not hit a manatee."
And there have been repeated 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 of it.
"Manatees have been harassed in areas that are outside the boundaries of the existing sanctuaries, and acts of harassment are likely to increase in the absence of additional measures," the Federal Register notice about the emergency rule says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold public hearings on the new rule, hand out fliers to local businesses to explain its reasoning, and take public comment on a permanent set of rules to provide manatees with greater protection from harassment.
In 2009, PEER petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop issuing commercial permits for swim-with-the-manatees tours, adopt rules forbidding swimming with the manatees and expand critical habitat status to key manatee breeding and resting areas.
The agency rejected the first two requests. As for critical habitat, the agency said that it was justified but it couldn't spare the time and resources to work on it. So this spring PEER filed a notice that it intends to sue to put the whole bay off-limits.
"The Fish & Wildlife Service cannot waste any more time — they must act now to protect this species from further harm," PEER attorney Christine Erickson said in March.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]