Manatees are among Mother Nature's most guileless and gentle creatures, and among her most vulnerable to the deadliest of predators — humans. So it is encouraging that federal regulators have proposed making permanent an emergency rule in effect since last year designating all of Citrus County's Kings Bay a manatee refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan will greatly restrict boat speeds in the waterway, all too often the cause of manatee injuries and deaths, and will bar reckless tourists from physically interfering with the sea cows' normal activities.
Kings Bay has long been a refuge to the endangered marine mammals, who are drawn to its warm, natural spring 72-degree waters. As many as 500 seek out the Kings Bay refuge in the winter, enticing more than 100,000 people to the area to see them. Kings Bay has been good for the manatees, and the manatees have been good for tourism. But this also has become an uneasy relationship.
Many visitors have yet to understand the manatee is not some sort of tourist attraction thrill ride. Tourists have ignorantly harassed manatees, poking them, attempting to ride them and even getting between mothers and their pups. It was not enough that manatees were threatened by irresponsible boaters speeding through the bay; now they were also enduring boorish interlopers invading their habitat.
Speeding boats, second only to cold weather as the leading cause of manatee deaths, represent the most significant human threat to the animal's survival. Kings Bay has been especially fatal, with 13 boat-related deaths over the past decade, including seven last year over a four-month period.
The long-overdue proposed permanent federal protections for all of Kings Bay, its tributaries and the Three Sisters Springs area were initiated after years of prodding and legal threats by environmental groups. The rules should ease the risks to manatees by establishing no-entry zones as needed to prevent harassment as well as year-round restricted boat speeds and a ban on swimming in certain areas. In a pragmatic nod that recognizes the economic impact of a manatee refuge in Citrus County, human contact with the mammals will be restricted to simple petting.
Five-thousand manatees call Florida waters their home. Making the protections permanent are an important step in ensuring the public respects the right of one of the state's most unique assets to be able to live in greater security and privacy.