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Shouts and joy precede safety

The winter home for a large group of endangered manatees on Florida's West Coast got a little safer during the past year.

Actions by the federal, state and local governments put in place an entirely new collection of speed, access and activity regulations designed to protect the county's most popular winter wildlife residents.

But protecting the interests of the manatees also means restricting the activities of humans _ prompting many forums for the perennial controversy of how to balance the needs of people against the needs of protected animals.

The emotional arguments on both sides of the issue sounded from the Crystal River City Hall to the County Commission chambers to the statehouse. And, although the protections finally ended up as compromises, officials agree that the manatees are better off now than they were before.

Much of the heat generated over the protections was directed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The criticism came primarily from the boating and diving public as well as from government leaders who voiced concerns that their authority was being usurped.

Some of the loudest shouting came from Crystal River city officials who have fought the establishment of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office on Kings Bay because they say the office violates city zoning.

The office, with its panoramic view of several of the more popular manatee gathering spots, opened several months before the start of the winter season.

For the first time, the federal agency had instant boat access to Kings Bay and a good view of the activities there that affect manatees.

But just days after the agency moved in, the city of Crystal River cited the Fish and Wildlife Service for the zoning violation. After a barrage of verbal accusations, the federal agency officially asked for a change in the city's comprehensive plan that will make the office legal.

While that will solve the issue at hand, the dispute prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service to drop plans to locate a manatee education center at the office site.

Instead, federal officials are going to consider other locations, including a possible joint venture with the state at the site of the old SeaWolf Restaurant in Homosassa Springs.

The office and the manatee center weren't the only controversies the federal agency fueled.

At the beginning of the manatee season last fall, they also established four new sanctuaries in Kings Bay where boaters, divers and swimmers were prohibited.

Although there have been few complaints since those areas were marked in November, a public hearing last spring brought plenty of complaints from area residents who said they were being closed out of areas they have traditionally used for boating and fishing.

The agency also has been blasted by officials with the Crystal River Chamber of Commerce, which is actively fighting changes to the National Wildlife Refuge Act that would give the agency more authority.

Chamber representatives say that if the agency is given more power, it can establish even more restrictions. That could severely damage the economy of the area, which relies heavily on tourist use of the waterways.

State officials also have raised the ire of local residents, boaters and anglers.

The governor and Cabinet approved new boat speed restrictions for all of Citrus County's coastal waterways late last year. The most controversial of those were the restrictions in the Crystal River where, outside of the marked slow and idle speed zones, boaters can travel up to 25 miles per hour in the channel or at slow speed along the shoreline.

A summertime water sports zone also was established in Kings Bay, but concerns for the manatees that use those areas in the summer have prompted further study.

Even Citrus County policymakers established new rules regarding manatees in the past year.

After years of discussion, the county adopted a manatee protection plan. The document states that the county will promote manatee awareness and education, support efforts to acquire habitat to protect the animals, limit development of boat ramps and docks in manatee areas, outline when aquatic herbicides can be used and urge strong enforcement of all rules designed to protect the endangered animals.

The manatee protection element is now a part of the county's overall comprehensive plan, its blueprint for future growth and development.