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The value in viewing a manatee

The tourist council wants to find out the economic impact of the public interaction.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published March 12, 2007


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CRYSTAL RIVER - Ask any local dive shop owner or tourist about Citrus County's biggest draw and you're likely to hear about the area's unique swim-with-manatees experience.

But just what is that worth to the community?

The Tourist Development Council could be partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service soon to find out.

The council seeks $10,000 to help fund an economic impact study on the manatee viewing experience. The item is in the proposed 2007-08 budget, which the council will begin reviewing Wednesday.

In January, Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge manager Jim Kraus spoke to the council about the importance of manatees in the county's strong eco-tourism focus.

He told council members that having hard economic statistics showing how much the popular marine mammals bring into the coffers of area businesses will help as his agency begins to draw up a new comprehensive plan for the Crystal River refuge later this year.

That comprehensive planning process will examine the current uses of the refuge and could result in changes in the rules about how the public interacts with manatees.

That issue has especially been in the forefront lately as two former Manatee Watch volunteers have continued to film people in area waters riding and harassing the protected creatures.

Publicity about those incidents has brought pressure on Kraus and state marine law enforcement officials charged with protecting manatees.

The $10,000 economic impact study proposal would be contingent on the federal agency's participation, said Mary Craven, tourism development director for Citrus County.

Just how that would work has not yet been detailed. But Craven said the study is needed.

"The TDC has frequently examined the returns on its marketing in different areas," she said. "It does spend a lot of its funds on the manatee encounter activity. It's a unique feature of this area."

The study would provide that needed measure, especially as new rules are contemplated that could limit public interaction with manatees.

"I think that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the TDC both need to know what economic impact manatees have on this area," Craven said.

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

[Last modified March 12, 2007, 06:40:58]


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