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Environmental group wants to stop people from swimming with the manatees

Swimming with manatees has been the foundation of Citrus County's tourism industry for the past 40 years. [Times files (2006)]
Swimming with manatees has been the foundation of Citrus County's tourism industry for the past 40 years. [Times files (2006)]
Published Mar. 10, 2015

An environmental group wants to stop all the "swim with the manatees" businesses that over the past 40 years have become the foundation of Citrus County's tourism industry.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed notice Monday that it intends to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over protections for the endangered animals. The suit, filed on behalf of four Citrus County environmental activists, calls for the federal agency to halt any program that lets humans get within 10 feet of a manatee.

"People do not need to pet manatees to learn about or appreciate them," PEER lead lawyer Laura Dumais said.

But Diane Oestreich of Bird's Underwater, which has been in the manatee ecotour business for 27 years, pointed to the increase in the number of manatees in Citrus County over decades as proof that humans petting and stroking and swimming beside manatees does not hurt them.

As for PEER, she said, "These people so need to back off and get a life." Ending the manatee swims would "severely damage our jobs and economy."

After Jacques Cousteau's documentary on the manatees of Crystal River, Forgotten Mermaids, aired on ABC in 1972, tourists willing to pay for a chance to swim with the odd marine mammals began showing up in Crystal River.

Since then, the manatee tour business has boomed in Citrus County. Because such tours were operating before the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, they were grandfathered in, and thus allowed to continue.

Last year, more than 265,000 people snorkeled with, paddled near or just looked at manatees during tours of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported. Under such crowded conditions, one of PEER's clients, Nature Coast Kayak Tours operator Tracy Colson, has ended tours of crowded Kings Bay because "it's too stressful for the manatees, and it's not a good experience for my customers."

Colson and others have made repeated complaints about tourists — and sometimes tour-boat operators — harassing the manatees. Videos posted to YouTube have shown a tour operator grabbing a baby manatee that had been trying to swim to its mother, then holding it up for his customers to take photos of it.

In 2009, PEER petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop issuing commercial permits for swim-with-the-manatees tours, adopt rules forbidding swimming with manatees and expand the manatees' critical habitat. The agency rejected the first two requests and said it was too busy to work on the third.

The group filed a notice to sue then, but held off because the agency promised improvements, according to a PEER news release. But new rules that the agency recently imposed for manatee protection in the Crystal River sanctuary do not go far enough, the group contends. PEER represents local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals.

The notice filed Monday gives the Fish and Wildlife Service 60 days to negotiate a settlement with the environmental group before any suit can be filed. Agency spokesman Chuck Underwood said the wildlife service is "currently reviewing" the notice, and pointed out that the impact of the agency's most recent rules is being monitored and they could be changed.

Meanwhile, a libertarian group, the Pacific Legal Foundation, is suing the Fish and Wildlife Service to have manatees lowered from "endangered" to "threatened" on the federal species list.

The foundation contends manatees should no longer be considered endangered because a February 2014 aerial survey counted 4,831 of them in Florida's waterways, which is about 1,800 more than were counted in a 2001 aerial survey. The agency has agreed to consider the move.

Biologists warn against relying on those aerial survey numbers as if they were human census records. They compare the process of counting manatees as they rise to the water's surface to breathe to trying to count popcorn as it pops — you can't be sure you're seeing every one.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.