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In Crystal River, both sides happily converge

What a difference a couple of decades of economic boon can make.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, critics of manatee protection efforts predicted economic ruin if environmentalists got their way and sanctuaries and speed zones were enacted. Boating and diving would be devastated. Kings Bay would close to the public.

Manatees would be saved, but at what cost, they asked.

Fast forward to today. On the steps of the Crystal River City Hall several weeks ago, manatee protection supporters who constitute the Save the Manatee Club presented the City Council, mayor and manager with a statue of a manatee calf to thank them for the community's many efforts to keep the endangered mammals safe.

Few would have predicted that such a day of congratulations could come in Crystal River. Fewer would have believed how well a protected manatee herd could fit with a flourishing business climate catering to people from all over the world who come to see and swim with manatees each winter.

For Save the Manatee officials, who had never before held a board meeting in the city that considers itself the manatee capital of the world, the visit was important.

All over Florida, lawsuits to better protect manatees filed by the club and other environmental entities have ignited a firestorm. As boating rights organizations fight against speed restrictions and other rules, Save the Manatee's executive director, Judith Vallee, wished aloud that everyone could see how well the seemingly competing interests have melded in Crystal River.

No one could agree more than Jim Kraus. As manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Kraus is on the front line of making sure the balancing act of protecting manatees and allowing the public to interact with them always comes out right.

"It's a fine line what we have to do to protect these creatures," Kraus said.

That can be tough sometimes, especially as crowds jam into area waters to see the rare creatures and have that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Citrus County is the only place in Florida that allows and even encourages people to swim with manatees, making that protection issue even more important.

The balance has become more difficult recently because the number of people enforcing manatee protection rules is small. Years ago, Kraus had four part-time law enforcement officers and one full-time officer; he now has only one full-time person.

Along with state and other local law enforcement presence in area waters, Kraus has another avenue or two for help, however. The biggest help comes from the volunteer forces of Manatee Watch.

Watch members patrol areas around Kings Bay, Crystal River and the Homosassa Blue Waters in their boats to make sure everyone out there understands the rules of interaction with manatees.

"We have an increasing reliance on that," Kraus said of the volunteers' education efforts. "It's not the total answer, but it's a help. These folks are out there acting as ambassadors."

The volunteers are easily identifiable in their U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniforms.

"They are a huge benefit. Like at any park, you have a sense that this is an official person doing official business," Kraus said. "I know there are visitors who we take out on the water who are very complimentary."

The volunteers aren't the only locals helping with the protection cause.

Other local boaters and waterfront property owners also participate. "There is a public presence and a peer pressure," Kraus said. "They're stakeholders, too."

The Fish and Wildlife Service office often gets calls about manatees from residents and tour boat operators, further guarding the resource.

"That makes a big difference," Kraus said. "It kind of helps keep people in bounds."

It wasn't always that way in Crystal River. What has happened here has been a natural progression, he said.

"You have to expect it to be a fairly rough road in the beginning," Kraus said. "Over time, the public becomes aware, there is enforcement, the establishment of sanctuaries and the community comes to accept that reality. . . . It does take time for those things to get established and become part of the landscape in the local mind set."

Kraus said he thought it was "natural" that Save the Manatee would come to Crystal River to share its appreciation for the tireless work done here to protect manatees.

"When you reflect back on history, this is one area where, in the long run, the ability to coexist and ultimately thrive is demonstrated," he said. "Crystal River and Citrus County obviously can be held up as a model of how it can be and how it can work in the long haul."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendtsptimes.com.

Save the Manatee Club board member Matt Clemons carries a manatee sculpture from The Port Hotel & Marina in Crystal River to his waiting vehicle. The sculpture was created by Crystal River artist Jesse Dobson of Fins Tails & OdySeas Inc., and was presented to Mayor Ron Kitchen and City Manager Susan Boyer in appreciation for the city's efforts to protect manatees.:

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