City sides with manatee safety

Crystal River officials endorse boat speed limits and a ban on petting sea cows. Federal authorities have the last word.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 28, 2007

CRYSTAL RIVER - Crystal River City Council members voted unanimously on Monday to recommend banning the petting of manatees and to make Kings Bay a slow speed zone to further protect the lumbering sea mammals.

The vote is only a recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is in the early stages of drawing up a new set of rules for manatee interactions in the area.

The vote came after council members watched a short video documenting boat traffic on the Crystal River and Kings Bay that also showed the final hours of an injured manatee struggling after suffering deep gashes from a boat propeller July 4.

The video made a point that members of the city's Manatee Protection Subcommittee wanted to drive home to the council.

Kings Bay has been a dangerous place for manatees. In addition to the dying animal on the videotape, another manatee was found near Pete's Pier last week severely injured by a boat propeller. It later died at the Lowry Park Zoo.

The images of the dying manatee coupled with video of boaters speeding through Kings Bay throwing up high wakes provided the exclamation point for a presentation by Gail Kostelnick. The chairwoman of the manatee protection subcommittee urged the City Council to back new manatee protection rules.

After nearly two hours of debate and discussion, the council approved a resolution supporting the committee's recommendations.

Boat captains and area boat owners spoke out against reducing the speed limit on Kings Bay in an area known as the summer sport zone. Some argued that enacting a no-touch rule would be unenforceable.

Still others urged the council to take decisive action both to protect manatees and people who are also at risk from speeding boaters.

Local resident Steve Kingery said that people can enjoy various forms of recreation but those that can cause damage are regulated. He also warned "human safety is a huge issue out there."

Cheryl Phillips, a member of the manatee protection subcommittee, told the council it was the responsibility of people to be stewards of the manatee. "I think you should get some backbone," she told them.

Council and audience members alike expressed concern that rules now on the books to protect manatees are not enforced.

Helen Spivey, co-chairwoman of the Save the Manatee Club, told the council that her organization was pushing for more enforcement and was also willing to fund some contract enforcement to make the waterways safer.

"Education can sometimes be a ticket," Spivey said.

After the council vote, Mayor Ron Kitchen urged the many audience members to help police the area waterways by reporting any speeding boaters or other law enforcement violations to the proper authorities.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.