Federal regulators have finally acted to give Florida's manatees in one winter habitat added protection from tourists who harass them. Emergency rules go into effect Monday that could result in boating and swimming bans in large areas of Kings Bay in Crystal River. Ultimately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should make these rules permanent.
To survive, Florida's marine mammals arrive by the hundreds every winter in Kings Bay, a safe haven where natural warm springs maintain a 72-degree temperature. But too many unscrupulous swim-with-the-manatees tour operators encourage their customers to prod, push, hold and corner the manatees. YouTube videos show wet-suited tourists chasing manatees, keeping calves from their mothers and attempting to ride the slow-moving mammals.
This harassment, experts say, discourage manatees from coming to the warm-water refuge, making them more at risk to cold stress. So far in 2010, 677 of the endangered mammals have died, with a significant percentage dying from cold. The manatee population is estimated at 5,000, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
The problem of habitat disturbance has long been known, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has done little about it. Manatee watching is big business in Citrus County, attracting 100,000 tourists annually. It took a threat to sue under the Endangered Species Act by a Washington-based group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, before the agency responded.
The new rules will allow managers to expand cordoned-off sanctuary areas for the manatees within Kings Bay whenever the areas get too crowded with manatees trying to escape tourists. The rules also bar behaviors, such as surrounding or poking an animal, that interfere with the manatees' normal activities. Petting would still be allowed — a nod toward tour operators who claim their business depends on it.
That is a start, but it should not be the end. Kings Bay has enjoyed a long tradition as one of the rare places where humans have access to these remarkable creatures up close. Every effort should be made to ensure they are enjoyed by observation alone.