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Time to slow down, make way for manatees

The manatee wintering season started last week, but some local boaters apparently haven't gotten the message.

Federal wildlife officers ticketed seven boaters for speeding on Kings Bay last weekend _ six from the local area and all running their boats at full throttle, according to Cameron Shaw, manager of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge complex.

Nearly all those tickets were written last Sunday because Saturday's weather was so bad, he said.

Oct. 1 was the start of the official manatee wintering season, and that means slow and idle speed limits go into force in areas where manatees congregate.

Last weekend's seven citations, which cost $50 each, are more than the usual number of weekend violations and more than the first weekend last season. Shaw was unable to supply figures. Patrols will continue every day through the end of the season March 31.

"I was hoping my pupils would have graduated by now," Shaw said, referring to the work he's put in to try to educate local boaters about the manatee protection rules. "I don't understand why these people were lax. . . . I would better understand it if the folks were from out of town."

Some of those ticketed said that they had forgotten the season had begun, and that they had been running their boats at that speed all summer.

Shaw estimated that during the recent cold fronts, there were probably about 100 animals in Kings Bay while people were speeding, he said.

During an aerial survey Wednesday, wildlife officials counted 87 manatees in Kings Bay, 14 of which were calves. In all, 97 manatees were spotted in the survey area, which included the Homosassa and Crystal rivers, the Florida Power energy complex and the Barge Canal.

Even during the summer months while there are fewer speed restrictions on area waters, several dozen manatees swim in the area. This past summer, one was killed in the Homosassa River after colliding with a boat.

A dead baby manatee was found in the Crystal River several weeks ago, but the cause of death could not be determined because the carcass was so decomposed.

In addition to speed restrictions in the bay, local boaters soon will be subject to the new 30 mph speed limit in the Crystal River. The first signs are being posted to mark the area and explain that the shoreline areas, which are roped off by buoys, are slow speed zones.

Enforcement of those speed limits will begin when the signs and markers are complete, Shaw said.

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