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Sea creatures have problems too

For manatees, the past few months have heralded a stressful climate - in both the meteorological and political senses. The recent cold spells, which killed dozens of the endangered manatees statewide, caused a record number of the animals to seek the warmth of Citrus County's spring-fed waterways. And that population explosion further burdened the agencies charged with protecting the creatures from speeding boats and overzealous divers.

Manatees cannot tolerate falling temperatures in the Gulf and in waters to the north, so they congregate in areas such as Kings Bay, which offers a main spring pumping plenty of warm water. During an aerial count in December, federal officials counted a record 286 manatees clustered around the spring and in other Citrus County waters.

The political climate for manatees also has been volatile. As federal, state and local officials patrol the waters to protect manatees, local policy-makers have struggled to develop rules to protect the mammals. Those efforts have met with considerable debate from some local residents and many businesspeople whose livelihoods depend on continued contact between visitors and manatees.

For more than a year, a committee of federal wildlife officers, local planners, businesspeople and others has been hard at work developing the county's Manatee Protection Plan.

The plan, which soon will face its first public hearings before the Citrus County Planning Commission, includes regulations ranging from boat dock specifications to suggestions for increased law enforcement personnel to enforce existing rules.

Throughout its development, the plan has stirred scrutiny from local businesspeople - especially local dive shop operators concerned about the possible addition of unnecessary regulations.

Some of the most controversial elements, such as new restrictions on contact with manatees, were dropped. Regulations can be added later, however, after the results of a research project are released later this year.

That project, conducted by University of Florida graduate student Cheryl Buckingham, involves an analysis of how people and manatees interact in the waters in and around Kings Bay.

While work on the county's Manatee Protection Plan progressed, the state took several actions to protect manatees and people.

But while other counties with large manatee herds were required to

establish a set of standard rules including boat speeds, Citrus County was exempted because it was developing its own rules.

To show the state Department of Natural Resources its good faith, the Citrus County Commission approved a batch of manatee protection rules several months ago.

Those rules include slow-speed zones where Crystal and Salt rivers meet and at the mouth of Crystal River; extended speed zones in Kings Bay and other area waterways including the Florida Power effluent canal; and speed limits for areas inside and outside the channels of all local waterways.

Those new rules approved by the commission eventually will become part of the overall Manatee Protection Plan. And that plan ultimately will become part of the county's comprehensive plan.

The protection plan isn't the only manatee-related project that has prompted controversy in recent months.

Last year, the federal government bought a small parcel on Kings Bay to establish a manatee education center.

The center is planned on property with a deed restricting its use to residential. But federal officials say they plan to go ahead with the center, a decision that has prompted neighborhood petitions and opposition from the Crystal River City Council.

The opponents say they object to the federal government's attitude about violating the deed restrictions and are concerned about increased traffic in the residential neighborhood.

Those who support the center say it will provide a headquarters for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The center will have direct access to Kings Bay and provide an educational program to teach the public about manatees.

Record numbers of manatees died last year - many in collisions with boats and boat propellers. And 1990 started with grim news as animals weakened by the late December cold spell began to die from cold-related health problems.

But while dozens of manatees died statewide after that cold snap, only one manatee was found dead in Citrus waterways from health problems that could have been aggravated by the cold.