Please don't ride the manatees
Volunteers are watching. They're keeping track. They've logged abuses in Homosassa waters just like those documented in the Crystal River.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published April 23, 2006
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Snorkelers swim with manatees at the Homosassa Blue Waters. Manatee Watch volunteers log countless violations by swimmers and boaters who mistreat the animals.
HOMOSASSA - Scattered among the pages of the logbooks are written descriptions of scenes that have become commonplace in the Homosassa Blue Waters, where endangered manatees and enthusiastic swimmers converge.
Manatee Watch volunteers, whose job is to educate visitors about appropriate behavior when swimming with manatees, frequently get cooperation. But their logs show that, day in and day out, rules are violated.
"Lots of boats. Lots of swimmers. Nine manatees in a pod trying to go downstream. Six times attempted to leave but too many boats and swimmers," one entry reads.
"One private fishing boat warned about fishing in the sanctuary," another states.
And another: "Several people trying to feed manatees."
The log entries represent only a sample of what Manatee Watch workers witnessed during this past manatee season at the Homosassa Blue Waters.
One of those watchers, Bill Garvin, said he has seen the same kinds of manatee harassment that were documented on videotape in the Crystal River. There, two former Manatee Watch volunteers filmed harassment and shared it with the media and the local tour businesses, sparking an angry reaction from some tour operators who thrive on swim-with-a-manatee programs.
They said negative publicity about manatee harassment is harming their business. They are meeting to find some way to counteract the publicity.
Garvin's fear is that more people will head to Homosassa waters when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opens discussions later this year on possibly tightening manatee interaction rules outside the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
He and others in the Homosassa area said manatees in the Blue Waters need no more pressure.
"The bottom line," manatee watcher Johnni Bates said, "is there are too many people."
* * *
Increasing numbers of manatees and increasing numbers of people are what created the need for manatee sanctuaries in the Homosassa Blue Waters in the first place.
Manatee Watch volunteers raised the alarm, sparking a debate that eventually resulted in the establishment of sanctuaries in November 2002.
While the sanctuaries are sanctioned by both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state has taken the lead on enforcement. Part of the reason is that the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park forms one of the boundaries for one of the sanctuaries.
Plus, the federal agency is extremely stretched: One law officer for the Fish and Wildlife Service must serve refuge enforcement needs between Crystal River and Pinellas County.
Manatees are classified as endangered by both the federal and state agencies. It is illegal to change their natural behavior. That is considered harassment, which is punishable by as much as a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Citrus County is the only place where swimming with manatees is sanctioned by the federal agency. In Crystal River, the authority is vested in the existence of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Special use permits are granted to tour businesses that operate in the waters around the refuge.
But that puts Homosassa and the Blue Waters in a kind of limbo.
While the manatee harassment debate has raged since former Manatee Watch volunteers Steve Kingery and Tracy Colson began filming and releasing the videotapes, the debate has been focused in Crystal River.
There, later this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service will begin discussing a new comprehensive management plan for the refuge.
Because of growing pressures in that area, refuge manager Jim Kraus has already warned that the manatee resource is probably already stretched as thin as it can be and that limits and new interaction rules might be needed.
But how will that affect Homosassa and the growing pressures at the Blue Waters?
"It's an interesting question," Kraus said. "It's certainly something that is going to have to be considered."
Garvin said that is exactly what worries him.
"I'd hate to see Homosassa be the poor stepsister that doesn't get any of the regulations that Crystal River might," he said.
* * *
Bates logged more manatee watch hours than anyone during the past season.
Her entries show that she observed just about every form of harassment and every manatee rule violation possible. She saw people surround manatees, dive down on them, feed them, chase them, hit them with boats and violate speed and sanctuary rules.
"I had a grown man hold a manatee down so his friends could see the big fish he was sitting on," Bates said.
She approached him and told him he couldn't ride on the manatee. He had to let it up so it could breathe. As soon as she moved away, he got back on top and called again for his friend to come see the big fish.
While rental boat operators especially riled some of the manatee watchers, there were plenty of violations identified in the logs that focused on tour operators. Some encouraged their customers to chase after fleeing manatees. Others looked the other way as customers violated rules.
Bates said the violations by tour operators were clearly profit driven.
"When you've got money on it and you want to sell some $35 videos, you'll do whatever you have to in order to sell the video," she said.
The situation is so bad, Bates said, "if I were to write down every violation that I see, I would not stop writing all day."
Garvin's volunteer hours are second only to those logged by Bates. His narrative reports are filled with vessel numbers that he recorded as he watched manatee rule violation after violation.
Armed with a long list of phone numbers, he does not hesitate to call law enforcement every time a gentle warning and a quick education of a boater or swimmer doesn't stop the problem.
But his complaint is that he doesn't see or hear enough from officers.
"We tend to refer to them as the invisible force," he said. "If the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was the fire department, then every house in the county would burn to the ground and be cold before they arrived."
So sometimes, when Garvin can't get any response, he will finish up his shift as a manatee watcher and take on the role of concerned citizen. With the Homosassa Blue Waters literally his own back yard, he has been known to call a few other state and local government agencies to make sure that the captains who don't follow the manatee rules are following licensing and taxing rules.
Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said their officers have not in recent memory written citations for manatee harassment in Citrus County. Federal officials said there have been a "rare few" manatee harassment cases written. They focus on speed zone violators, as do state officers, saying that manatees often are killed by speeding boaters.
In fact, last year, Citrus had a record number of manatee deaths, with 18 of the animals found dead in area waters. The highest number of manatees killed by boats in the county also was found last year: six.
State law officers conduct targeted enforcement in area waters. From Jan. 1, 2005, through last week, the commission logged 1,328 manatee patrol hours, 128 citations, 180 written warnings and 566 verbal warnings and checked 1,633 vessels, said agency spokeswoman Karen Parker.
"We do work with (the Fish and Wildlife Service) in the area. And we have responded to all reported complaints made to the (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) from the volunteers," Parker wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.
She also said the sanctuaries provide a place for manatees to go when they feel harassed.
Although the behavior she sees and the lack of law enforcement frustrate her, Bates said, she will still keep coming back to her Manatee Watch task.
"When we're not there, it's "Katie bar the door,"' she said. "At least when we are out there, it's a little bit of a deterrent."
* * *
Alicia Lowe knows that the situation must change, and she worries that manatees have been "a resource that's been exploited."
In the confined zone that is the Homosassa Blue Waters, boaters, swimmers and manatees all vie for the same limited area. Add a lack of control of the behavior, and the situation becomes an even bigger problem.
"No doubt about it, there is a lot of pressure on the resource," said Lowe, co-owner of River Safaris and Gulf Charters Inc.
But because the majority of her business isn't swim-with-a-manatee tours, she does not think she would be impacted if new rules were put in place.
"My feeling is, if you take care of the resource, you take care of your businesses," Lowe said.
She is an even bigger believer that new rules would not be needed if the existing ones were enforced.
"To me, over and above everything else," she said, "enforcement would cure everything."
Much of Lowe's business revolves around manatee viewing. She doesn't rent wet suits. But she does think people should be allowed to get in the water with the animals.
It can be done in a way that creates a good experience for the person and the manatee. She said she would even favor a required floatation device so swimmers could float on the surface and passively observe.
"I don't think you have to be underwater groping them to have a quality experience," she said. "They do come up, and they will come to see you if they want to."
Neither Bates nor Garvin wants to see the swim-with-a-manatee experience end. They want to see rules followed and enforced.
"The flip side of the coin is that I do see good coming out of people in the water with manatees. If there is an endangered animal that you have never seen, you could care less about it," Garvin said.
"If you get in the water and you interact with this gentle, kind animal, now you feel closer to it and you want to do what you can do to help it."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352 564-3621.
[Last modified April 23, 2006, 00:49:08]
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