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Groups focus on manatee protection

For years, environmentalists have clamored for more manatee protection in the part of the Homosassa River known as the Blue Waters. Government officials at the local, state and federal levels have agreed more safeguards were necessary.

It seems increasingly unlikely that new controls will be in place by winter, when manatees start flocking into warm area springs. But a first step is in the works.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has scheduled invitation-only focus group meetings in early August. The separate sessions will assemble small, representative groups of environmentalists, property owners, dive shop owners, fishing guides and others.

The groups will review preliminary ideas and discuss options, helping state officials create some general recommendations for their superiors. Then the agency will hold public hearings so all people can express their views before a final ruling is issued.

"We're hopeful that when we get all of this done, it will not be as onerous as some people are concerned it will be," said Kipp Frohlich of the state's Bureau of Protected Species Management.

Manatees have gathered in the Blue Waters _ the area near the headwaters of the river just outside the boundaries of the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park _ in increasing numbers in recent years. Divers also have increased their presence, since the area is known as a good place to see the endangered animals.

That crush of boaters and swimmers side by side with protected animals has led to concerns about manatee harassment. The Blue Waters has been identified formally both by the state and the federal government as a place where new restrictions are needed. Environmental agencies have sued both federal and state officials over statewide manatee protection, and the state's movement to begin setting new regulations in the Blue Waters and elsewhere is a result of the lawsuit settlement agreement.

Frohlich said that, in other places around the state where the focus meetings have been held, the stakeholders and agency officials started with a blank slate. Not so at Blue Waters, where sanctuaries and other protection systems have been discussed for some time.

Helen Spivey, co-chairman of the Save the Manatee Club, got her invitation to the focus meetings earlier this week. "My question is: Are they going to be doing anything other than meet?" said Spivey, whose club was among those that sued the state and federal agencies.

She said she was frustrated by the time lag. "We need to pass something to let the manatees stay where it's warm in the winter, even if it's on an emergency basis," Spivey said.

Gary Maidhof, the county's director of development services, suggested people Frohlich might want to put on the invitation list. Maidhof said the county has backed off on any notion of creating its own Blue Water regulations.

"Our intent now is for us to take a back seat to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission," Maidhof said. "They have the implementation resources . . . the law enforcement capabilities that we don't have."

Jim Kraus, manager of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex, also has been invited to view the August meetings. He said he knows there has been some pressure for his agency or the state to move faster, but he encouraged those interested in the Blue Waters to be patient and allow all the interested parties to come together to find a solution.

"However this all shapes up in the future, it's got to be pretty comprehensive," Kraus said.

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