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Manatee safety or public access?

Why not both? That's the goal, but proposed new regulations concerning protection versus access could tip a delicate balance.

Local residents have known for some time that West Citrus waters are an important part of the manatee protection picture.

Hundreds of the endangered creatures gather each winter to rest in warm springs and munch aquatic vegetation. Because of that, thousands of visitors eager to catch a glimpse or take a swim with manatees come to the area, filling the coffers of local hotels, restaurants and dive shops.

To the agencies that protect manatees, that collision of endangered animals and crowds of interested onlookers has created a difficult balancing act of protection versus public use.

Now new regulations may be on the horizon for area waters, a development that all but guarantees that the age-old conflicts will rise again.

Specifically, a long-discussed but never established manatee sanctuary at the Homosassa Blue Waters may be a reality in another year or two. In addition, officials are discussing a new layer of regulations that could limit public contact with manatees swimming in an even larger portion of Kings Bay beyond the existing sanctuaries.

On Sept. 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a generic notice in the Federal Register. It noted that the agency was considering establishing new protection areas for manatees throughout their range.

"These protection areas would be either refuges, areas where waterborne activities are restricted, or sanctuaries, areas where waterborne activities are prohibited," the notice reads. "The service is considering this action as a means to reduce the level of watercraft-related incidental take of manatees."

In connection with that notice, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been conducting regional meetings statewide with various agencies to discuss what geographic areas need manatee protection measures. When the group visited St. Petersburg's Marine Research Institute to discuss Florida's northwestern coast last month, Citrus waters figured prominently in the discussion.

Kings Bay and the surrounding canal system have the only federally established manatee sanctuaries in the state and the oldest of those were established nearly two decades ago. Others have been added since, usually with considerable community debate about whether closing areas is really the best way to protect manatees.

Several years ago, there was much focus on the Blue Waters area as manatee protection volunteers and some area residents complained that large numbers of manatees, combined with a growing group of boaters and snorkelers in the area, was driving the animals away from the important warm-water source.

The state studied the area and identified problems. The solution: dredge an area between the Blue Waters and the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. That area is already closed to public use, but without dredging isn't used by manatees because it is too shallow.

But no funding is currently available for the project and the latest project proposal has been rejected and must be resubmitted, according to Tom Linley, state park manager.

"Harassment takes place there, but I'm not convinced that there are a lot of acts of individual harassment. I think those are few and far between," said Cameron Shaw, manatee biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"My concern there, as it has been for years, is harassment by volume," Shaw said. "You try to put 100 or so manatees and 100 plus people in an area that isn't conducive to that and something has got to give. What's been giving is the manatees have been moving out of there."

With the dredging project at least a couple of years away, Shaw said something needs to be done quicker to solve the problem. But even with the statewide push to establish new sanctuaries, such actions take time. Shaw said he expects a proposal on new regulations to be written by February and then public input would be gathered on the ideas.

"From the timing of the overall process, nothing is going to be coming for his winter," Shaw said. "However, if we do get significant enough complaints . . . something could be established under emergency regulations."

Before Shaw moved to the Fish and Wildlife Service Jacksonville office, he had served for several years as the manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and had pushed to establish a similar emergency sanctuary at Three Sisters Spring. That is now a permanent sanctuary during the winter season.

Shaw said now the various agencies are talking about other changes in the Crystal River and Kings Bay protections including possible expansion of the Three Sisters Spring sanctuary. The topic of the summer sport zone beside Banana Island was also discussed. Some have argued that the higher boat speed limits allowed in that area over the summer months endanger any animals which spend the summer in the Kings Bay area.

"There's just some concern about that and we want to look at it," Shaw said.

But probably a much more controversial idea was the mention in the August agency meeting that more of the overall Kings Bay should have additional regulations. The ideas included regulating the kinds of waterborne activities on the bay by possibly limiting numbers of boats or people in the bay, or requiring that all people diving there have a special manatee diving certification.

Shaw said none of those ideas has been talked about in any depth. The topic likely will get much more discussion before any proposals are presented.

The notice in the Federal Register came, coincidentally, at about the same time as public discussions by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about setting criteria that will need to be met before manatees can be delisted or downlisted from their endangered species status.

Coupled with those discussions, state officials have said that Crystal River is an area where manatees are doing well because of regulations already in place.

That message seems confusing at a time new regulations are under consideration.

Shaw said he thought it was premature for the agencies to be talking seriously about downlisting manatees from endangered to threatened, especially since many of the statistics that have been used are dated.

"I think that there is a lot of speculation both in terms of reclassification and in terms of exactly what the manatee populations are doing in the region and the state that it is premature to discuss it (downlisting) at best," he said.

The downlisting discussion has come as a part of the process of drawing up a new version of the Manatee Recovery Plan. Linley, at the state wildlife park, is a part of the committee drawing up the criteria. As he pointed out, the purpose of a recovery plan is to set criteria on how to improve an animal's status to the point that it is recovering and no longer endangered.

Much scientific information and discussion will be involved before any such downgrading of the manatee's status would happen, he said.

Linley said he didn't have an opinion on whether the Blue Waters needed an actual sanctuary. For years he has pushed a multi-faceted approach to manatee protection which includes education and enforcement.

"We can set aside as many sanctuaries as you want, but without education and enforcement, you're not going to do the job," Linley said.

Jim Kraus, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, said the Blue Waters sanctuary idea and the other ideas tossed around in the agency meeting several weeks ago are at the most preliminary stage of discussion. He himself was not even aware that the new Kings Bay regulations had been brought up at the session.

"I would like to know more about that," he said, noting that the public will have much opportunity for input throughout the process of developing any new regulations.

But Kraus did say that hearing about possible new regulations at the same time Crystal River is being recognized as a place where manatees are doing well are two ideas that he doesn't see as contradictory in the least.

"We cannot over-emphasize the importance of this area in the overall future of the manatees," Kraus said. "This area is a key to the continued existence and recovery of the species . . . so this spot naturally is right at the top of the priority list."