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How close is too close when humans meet manatees?
A crowd of 100 debates limits for tourists.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
CRYSTAL RIVER - To businesses and wildlife advocates here, the manatee is a jewel. This week, federal officials asked citizens for help in keeping this beloved, and endangered, treasure safe for future generations.
More than 100 people flocked to a public forum at the National Guard Armory Wednesday night to suggest steps ranging from year-round manatee sanctuaries and lower boat speed limits to a strict no-touch rule.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will collect comments over the next 30 days to help develop a comprehensive conservation plan for the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. After a draft is written, more comments will be taken, and a final plan should be implemented by September 2010.
Each winter, the rare mammals swim to the warm springs at the refuge as the gulf water temperatures drop. Humans follow because the refuge is the only place the federal agency sanctions swimming with manatees.
The activity has been a huge financial boon for decades to area dive shops, restaurants, hotels and other tourist-dependent businesses. But the swimmers are not always kind to the gentle sea cows.
Widely circulated videos of people riding, feeding and chasing manatees have spurred calls for more regulations. Conservation groups want limited contact with the manatees, preferring passive observation.
"I ask you to try to understand what petting really is," kayak tour operator Matt Clemons said at the Wednesday night forum. "Manatees are extremely tactile animals. ... Just because they like it doesn't mean it's good for them."
Area resident Steve Kingery insisted that the government must stop people from chasing the manatees. Petting and feeding the animals, he said, make them less afraid of humans and puts them at risk.
"We need to replace the entertainment value of the manatee with respect for the animal and the environment," he said.
Several speakers urged the agency to expand its borders beyond the small islands and one spring that now constitute the formal refuge. They want federal officials to help them acquire the nearby Three Sisters Springs, where clear water makes it one of the most popular manatee viewing areas.
Dive shop operators suggested a guide certification program that would provide a code of conduct for tour operators and a common script so that everyone would know the standard manatee interaction rules.
Mike Millsap of Sunshine River Tours warned of dire economic consequences if people can't swim with manatees. "Who will come to our area without some sort of interaction with manatees?" he asked.
When swimmers are allowed to see manatees up close, "they go home loving this animal," said boat captain Gerald Lynd. "It now becomes real to them. It's something they want to protect."
The various comments gave Jim Kraus, manager of the Crystal River refuge, "a lot of good food for thought."
"I feel very optimistic to be able to work through the problems that we have," Kraus said. "I am very encouraged by what I see as a willingness of folks to work together on this."