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A busy manatee season foreseen

Federal, state and local officials in charge of protecting manatees and their habitat are predicting a busy manatee wintering season.

Cameron Shaw of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service predicted a typical year for usage of area waterways with 126 manatees, a normal amount, spotted in an aerial survey last week. The manatee season runs from September through April, with many of the animals coming to local waters from November through March.

Speaking at a Manatee Advisory Committee meeting Thursday, Shaw also said studies of the waterways showed an adequate supply of water weeds to feed the animals. But he also said his agency will continue to monitor the food source to avoid any recurrence of last year's proposed "lettuce drop."

Retired actor Edna Skinner visited the area last year and said that manatees were starving. She called for people to drop lettuce in Kings Bay. The large-scale lettuce drop never took place, but many visitors to area waters got tickets for illegally feeding manatees.

Trouble areas for manatee harassment last year _ at the outflow of the Three Sisters Spring canal and in the Blue Waters of the Homosassa River _ will be monitored by law enforcement officials again this year, Shaw told the group.

Recent high numbers of manatees and people in those areas have prompted state and federal officials to consider new water-use restrictions, but no changes are expected during the upcoming season.

The committee also discussed the controversy over the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park's possible expansion of a no-entry zone and construction of a new walking bridge for park property on the river.

Homosassa business people are circulating a petition opposing the extension of the closed area, but the committee decided to take no formal stand on the park's plans until it hears from park manager Tom Linley.

Citrus environmental planner Gary Maidhof told the committee about a plan to put out a new pamphlet with maps of the area's waterways and their complex speed restrictions.

The county's eco-tourism committee has approved the project, and the county and Shaw hope to find a corporate sponsor to pay for the printing. They already have met with Florida Power representatives seeking support.

Shaw also said his agency plans to return the pontoon-boat informational kiosk to Kings Bay for area visitors. The boat likely will be anchored just off the manatee sanctuary area. Sanctuaries themselves will be unchanged from last year other than a new marking system. The no-entry sanctuaries will go into effect Nov. 15.

The plan by Crystal River and Citrus County to clear the cloudy waters of Hunters Spring and Kings Spring is bogged down in a discussion of costs, Maidhof said.

The necessary permits to vacuum silt out of those areas have been obtained, but the firm doing the preliminary work cited high cost figures and has been asked to find a cheaper alternative, he said.

Shaw said he still is not sure how much silt removal will clarify the water in the springs. He told the committee that he has talked to a firm that is working with a bacteria that may eat algae, which Shaw said is more of a problem than the silt.

Shaw also noted that the number of visitors to Kings Bay has been off slightly. But he said he thinks the drop is not tied to new manatee protection rules put into place last year. Instead, he said, the word has spread that the bay's water is not as clear as it once was.

In other activities with local regulations, Citrus officials are considering lowering the river speed in a small stretch of the Crystal River to slow or idle speed in front of the Fort Island Trail Park, Maidhof said.

Shaw also noted that a meeting is scheduled in the next few weeks to talk to Coast Guard officials about their concerns that the current buoy system of marking the Crystal River poses some dangers to area boaters.