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A middle ground on manatees

Depending on who's talking, the issue of how much protection government should give to manatees is one that will either make or break the economy in Crystal River.

A more accurate prediction of the fate of business in this coastal community in Citrus County rests somewhere between the extremes. But if the two sides don't work together, both will lose this tug of war between economics and the environment.

While one portion of the battle is being waged in Citrus County, other fronts have opened in Washington state and in Washington, D.C. A bill in a congressional subcommittee, and a federal lawsuit filed in Seattle by several conservation groups against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, threaten to dictate drastic changes in the way humans will interact with the endangered manatee.

Over the past decade, laws have been passed and other steps have been taken to protect the lovable sea mammals, which migrate by the hundreds each winter to warm coastal waters.

In Crystal River, where the manatees flock to the spring-fed King's Bay, the Wildlife Service has established several manatee sanctuaries around the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The suit filed by the coalition of conservation groups claims the agency is not fulfilling its obligation to protect the endangered species within the refuge.

Merchants have estimated that the thousands of people who visit the area each year to dive in the springs and get close to the sedate creatures create a tourism industry worth about $7-million annually. But the congressional action and the lawsuit, filed in October by groups including the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, threaten to sink that industry, they believe.

While speed limits have been lowered for boaters who sometimes run over the manatees, and temporary sanctuaries have been set aside from November to March each year to further shield the creatures from human contact, the lawsuit claims the endangered creatures are being harassed in other ways.

Simply touching the manatees while they are feeding, or separating a sea cow from its calf, are intrusive and illegal acts, the suit claims. The environmental groups also allege the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to adequately staff the refuge to ensure that existing manatee protection laws are strictly enforced.

The bill now being discussed by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Clean Water, Fisheries and Wildlife was sponsored Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, in the Senate, who chairs that committee, and in the House by Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa.

In the broader view, the bill would ensure that all recreational activities conducted in national wildlife refuges are compatible and not damaging to the environment or its inhabitants. In Citrus County, it would give refuge managers the leeway to limit any activities that are harmful to the manatee.

With a new administration in Washington, the likelihood is good the bill will be passed into law after public hearings are held on the issue.

The business community in Crystal River, while not joining the lawsuit, is fighting the bill as best it can. That group fears such restrictions will destroy a way of life upon which they have learned to rely for identity as well as dollars.

Better education, perhaps including a mandated curriculum administered through the Fish and Wildlife Service, and cooperation seem to be the best methods by which to resolve this impasse. Clearly, protection of the manatee is in the best interest of both sides.

Without argument, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to be adequately staffed to enforce the manatee protection laws. And the temporary sanctuaries should be redesignated as permanent, year-round retreats for the manatees. More importantly, the existing manatee protection laws must be enforced.

But that enforcement responsibility must extend beyond the Fish and Wildlife Service. Dive shop and boat tour operators must do all they can to protect the creatures on which their livelihoods depend. They must do a better job of educating their customers about the do's and don'ts of swimming with the manatees and they must immediately report any harassment of manatees they witness.

For most people, contact with manatees breeds respect for their serene existence. Unfortunately, there are those cold-hearted individuals who would choose to abuse their fleeting encounters with such wonderful, warm-blooded beasts.

Closing off King's Bay to recreation so that manatees can have free run of the waters, which many in the business community would have you believe will happen, will not happen. What will happen, if sensible compromises are not reached, is the gradual decline of the endangered species.

The business people and governments of Citrus County have done more than most other Florida communities to protect the manatee, and for that they should be proud.

But business and government should be working with, not against, the environmental groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service to safeguard this goose that just happens to lay golden eggs.