By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
CRYSTAL RIVER -- Use the term "manatee season" anywhere else and it might conjure images of hunting.
But in Citrus County, where the manatee wintering season has for more than two decades included closed sanctuaries and strict speed zones for watercraft, manatee season is when the popular marine mammals show up in force and attract tourists with plump wallets.
For the past year, communities throughout Florida have erupted in emotional battles concerning boating restrictions designed to protect manatees. The battles are similar to those fought locally years ago and won by manatee protection agencies.
Although manatees in Citrus waters still die from collisions with boats -- there were three such deaths in 2002 through November -- even with the area's growing manatee population, the mortality numbers are far lower than elsewhere in the state.
Manatee advocates argue that the trend is no coincidence.
Citrus has done what was necessary to protect its cash sea cow, enacting the state's first manatee protection plan in 1991 and establishing sanctuaries and speed zones to keep the creatures safe long before recent lawsuits forced the issue elsewhere.
Those lawsuits were filed by a coalition of environmental groups led by the Save the Manatee Club. The legal action was designed to push state and federal agencies to enact similar kinds of protections in parts of Florida where more manatees die from boat strikes.
But the legal actions have prompted one unexpected side effect: They have created a polarization of opinions on the gentle herbivore and its status as an endangered animal.
In some parts of the state, the lack of regulations has threatened the approval of future docks and seawalls, igniting strong opposition to new rules and cries that property rights and the right to use the waterways are being threatened.
Boating and marine industry officials point to state aerial survey information that shows increasing manatee counts in parts of Florida. This, they said, is evidence that ever-growing watercraft mortality numbers for manatees were a natural outgrowth of an increasing population, not the result of too-lax rules governing human interaction with manatees.
These interests are pushing governmental agencies to review the manatee's protective status.
Manatee advocates say the mammals still need protective status as a growing number of boaters crowd Florida's waterways.
"It's been a bad year, and we're just not getting the message out that manatees have to have a place to live or they are not going to survive," said Helen Spivey, co-chairman of the Save the Manatee Club and a longtime Crystal River resident. "If they can't have habitat, they won't make it."
She said her own back yard, Kings Bay and the Crystal River, offers prime examples of why the arguments made against restrictions don't hold up.
She was at the hearings when the original sanctuaries were proposed and when expanded sanctuaries grew from another lawsuit years later.
The arguments then were similar: Businesses and boaters would suffer and lose rights. But Spivey said that hasn't been the case at all.
"The businesses are thriving. The dive shops are thriving. The fishing guides are thriving," she said. "Go out on Kings Bay in the winter and you'll see it's full of rented canoes and rented kayaks and happy people."
While the boater rights groups have argued that an increase in the number of manatees will naturally mean more boat mortalities, Spivey said that has not been the case in Citrus, where winter populations have grown over the years.
Since 1974, when the state first began to retrieve and study carcasses, there have been 134 manatees found dead in Citrus waters, 32 of which were killed by watercraft. This year alone, in the manatee hot spots of Lee, Duval and Brevard counties, 40 manatees have been killed by boats through November.
With an estimated 10 percent or more of the Florida manatee population visiting Citrus waters each winter, the local mortality numbers are low. Statewide in 2002, 95 manatees were killed by boats, a new record for watercraft mortalities. The number for the same time in Citrus is three.
"We've got more of them here and we're not killing them" at the same rate, Spivey said. "We've proved that wrong."
Representative of the local perspective on manatee protections is the reaction to proposals this past year affecting the Homosassa Blue Waters. The swimming and snorkeling spot near the headwaters of the Homosassa River has become increasingly popular with manatees.
In recent years, federal and state officials have examined the need to enact restrictions there. Federal officials have determined that some boaters and swimmers are harassing manatees; but even beyond that, the officials say the sheer number of humans in the water, regardless of their conduct, constitutes harassment of the animals.
Like other spots throughout Florida identified by both the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as needing new protections, the Blue Waters was slated for sanctuary status. Statewide, public hearings on such restrictions brought emotional and vitriolic opposition.
But in Citrus, the hearings on the proposed Blue Waters sanctuaries drew small crowds and a mix of those who favored restrictions and those who questioned the need for more rules, according to Kipp Frohlich, biological administrator for the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Bureau of Protected Species.
Several years ago, another discussion about restrictions at the Blue Waters brought out a crowd of angry residents who said they didn't want to see changes. But the fact that such restrictions had been discussed for years -- and that the community already knew what sanctuaries were and how they worked -- might have helped temper the local discussion recently, he said.
"There have been manatee protection zones in Citrus County for years, and some people are familiar with what they are like. Plus you have that whole swim-with-the-manatee economic factor there, which confuses the issue a bit," Frohlich said.
While elsewhere the existence of manatees might be a nuisance for boaters who want to travel quickly into the Gulf of Mexico for fishing and recreation, in Citrus County manatees are big business.
Spivey said many developments during the past year have been discouraging, even though new restrictions will mean safer waterways for manatees in some areas.
She looks at manatee mortality numbers and worries that most of the animals killed are young, frisky males. While manatees may have lived to be 50 to 60 years old in the past, they now tend to die between the ages of 9 and 15 -- prime time for manatees to be producing young.
"They're not dying from old age. . . . When you see that, you've got trouble," Spivey said.
"It's been a sad year. I hope next year will be better, but I doubt it," she said. "I always hope that things will work out for manatees because if they don't, then they won't work out for Florida."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111