tampabay.com

Manatee petting: Just good fun, or marine harassment?

Interaction between humans and the endangered mammals could also be endangered if the rules limiting it aren't enforced.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published March 20, 2006


CRYSTAL RIVER - In the murky blue water of Kings Bay, the baby manatee swam out of a sanctuary and smack dab into a group of snorkelers.

Moments later, the baby tried to dive away from the human attention, seeking the safety of the sanctuary and, presumably, its mother. But hands lifted the animal to the surface. Bodies blocked its escape.

Then a tour boat captain tugged at the animal, keeping it close to the snorkelers, positioning it for the video camera.

Tracy Colson recorded the scene on her video camera. But she wasn't trying to sell videos. She was trying to save manatees.

Her footage is rare evidence of what some say is a growing problem: manatee harassment. The behavior on the tape, manatee advocates say, illustrates the need for stronger rules, or at least stronger enforcement of the existing ones.

The issue isn't just academic: Citrus County waters are the only place where hands-on interaction with an endangered species is sanctioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But federal officials could pull the plug.

"People are not following the rules, and those folks are putting the whole thing in jeopardy. They could ruin it for everyone," said Jim Kraus, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

Crystal River cannot afford that. The manatee is the cash cow driving the community's tourist economy each winter, when the endangered sea cows come inland to escape the cold Gulf of Mexico waters.

The city's slogan: "Crystal River: Where Man and Manatee Play."

It might not look or sound like much, but the dive party shown on the video broke, or at least skirted, almost every rule in the book: Never separate a mother manatee and a calf. Only touch a manatee with one open hand and only if it approaches you. Passively observe the manatee from a distance.

(Video of the incidents can be seen at links.tampabay.com.)

Colson and partner Steve Kingery compiled more than an hour of footage. It shows the subtle ways that uninformed, overly enthusiastic or just plain headstrong swimmers violate the basic rules.

Swimmers chase moving manatees. They block manatees that are seeking food. They wake sleeping manatees with pats and camera strobe flashes.

Schoolchildren and adult swimmers flap flippers loudly on the surface of the water looking for manatees.

Other footage shows more blatant rule violations: People trespass into the off-limits sanctuaries, a young girl maneuvers onto a manatee for a ride while her parents swim alongside and a man feeds manatees palm fronds.

Changing a manatee's natural behavior in any way is considered harassment, according to the law. Violators can face federal prison time and fines of as much as $100,000.

But Tom MacKenzie, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman in Atlanta, said there have been "rare few" prosecutions. With limited resources, he said, the agency's focus is on preventing activities known to kill manatees.

Kingery and Colson once served with Manatee Watch, a volunteer force that goes where manatees and swimmers congregate to educate people about the interaction rules and to report violations.

They said they quit in frustration several months ago. They had seen too much harassment and too little action to stop it, they said.

They said they hope distributing the video to media, manatee advocate groups and eventually tour businesses will prompt new rules and better enforcement.

"Everyone knows that if changes aren't made, it will get shut down," Colson said.

Kraus has put tour operators on notice that, as he and his staff begin work on a new comprehensive management plan for the refuge later this year, changes could be coming.

The plan could establish a new set of rules for manatee interactions. That could mean limiting the number of people who would get to swim with manatees.

Kraus said he believes area waterways and manatees are already as stretched to their limit by the current demand.

"I've told them that the future may be different," he said.

Tour guide Marty Senetra of Bird's Underwater Manatee Tours in Crystal River, said he isn't sure new rules are needed.

"We have enough rules in place," he said. "We need enforcement."

Kraus has just one law enforcement officer stretched across refuges from Citrus to Pinellas County.

That officer's main focus in Crystal River is enforcing speed restrictions. Enforcing sanctuaries and harassment cases follow in importance.

Senetra has seen some of the footage shot by the former Manatee Watch volunteers. He disputes that the harassment is as cut and dry as their narration suggests.

But he agrees that he sees violators. Most come from rental boats without tour guides, he said.

Helen Spivey, co-chair of the Save the Manatee Club and a former state legislator from Citrus County, said the answer is simple. Go back to the way other endangered wildlife is viewed.

"You should lay on the surface and watch a manatee do its manatee thing," she said. "We need to let the species be wild."

--Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 352 564-3621.