CRYSTAL RIVER — A national environmental organization has asked the federal government to prohibit all swimming with manatees, citing increasing harassment of the endangered species.
While many manatee advocates over the years have urged the government to stop the practice, this is the first time any group has formally petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to end the controversial "swim with manatees" experience.
Citing the antiharassment requirements in the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility threatens to sue the federal agency if it does not enforce the rules more stringently.
PEER works with anonymous government workers seeking to expose environmental wrongdoing. In January 2008, the organization sued the FWS to obtain public records on manatee harassment and protection. The filing on Wednesday is an outgrowth of the group's study of those records.
Thousands of people visit Citrus County every year to swim with manatees in the springs at the headwaters of the Crystal and Homosassa rivers. It is a huge economic windfall for Citrus County, the only place where the federal government sanctions such activities.
In recent years, area residents concerned about manatee harassment have been filming in the area and distributing videos of visitors riding, feeding and chasing manatees in violation of the manatee interaction rules.
Both the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a public meeting in Crystal River last month seeking suggestions from the public on ways to fix the problem.
Pat Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, called PEER's action a formal notice that "time's up'' on the talk about ending the harassment.
"I welcome it,'' Rose said. "While I believe we've been making some progress . . . I'm very frustrated with the pace of that progress.''
The FWS questioned whether PEER followed the correct procedures to challenge the "swim-with" program and plans to respond to the filing in the coming weeks, said spokesman Chuck Underwood.
Matt Clemons, who operates a kayak business in Crystal River, said he hopes the action forces some compromise that will end the harassment of area manatees. "I've been predicting all along that this industry needs to evolve,'' he said.
But Jerry Hogan, owner of the Crystal Lodge Dive Shop and a 30-year operator of swim-with-manatees tours, said hundreds of manatees come to the area because they enjoy the protection and interaction with swimmers.
"It's working here,'' he said. "We should be the poster child of what to do with manatees, not what not to do.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.