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County floats refuge proposal

Developed locally, restricted-access areas in Blue Waters would take the place of a federal manatee sanctuary.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001


HOMOSASSA SPRINGS -- When federal, state and local officials met last week to discuss manatee protection at the Homosassa Blue Waters, everyone seemed to agree on one reality.

photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Snorkelers swim with manatees in the Blue Waters area of the Homosassa River on Thursday.
Because of growing usage by both manatees and people in the Blue Waters, new regulations to protect the endangered animals from harassment and harm are on the horizon.

But something new also emerged from the familiar conversation: While many expect that the Blue Waters will be on a short list of areas the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will move to protect this spring, Citrus County now has stepped up with an offer to try to find a local solution.

County Development Services Director Gary Maidhof floated an idea to have the County Commission establish no-entry sanctuaries at the Blue Waters and create another larger zone outside that space where only people who qualify for special permits and meet specific criteria could enter.

The thought is, if that can work under local control and with the support of the local community, then the Fish and Wildlife Service will not have to establish federal sanctuaries like the ones that currently dot Kings Bay and surrounding canals.

On the short list of sanctuaries

The Blue Waters is the area just outside the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. That park contains the spring that is the headwaters of the Homosassa River. Manatees gather in the area to rest; when the temperatures are low each winter, dozens can be seen there sleeping on the shallow bottom.

But as the numbers of manatees have grown, so have the numbers of boaters who arrive early on winter mornings to swim with the animals. Officials have seen and filmed numerous cases of manatee harassment, which is a violation of federal law. And they also have determined that the sheer number of people crowded into that area on some days creates harassment as well, sometimes driving the animals away from the warm waters they need to stay healthy when Gulf water temperatures drop.

Enter a parade of agencies that have authority to solve the problem.

Federal officials have long talked about the need for sanctuaries, but have in recent years deferred to the state to fix things. But recently state officials have made it clear that they have other manatee protection priorities, including reducing the number of animals killed each year by speeding boats and other human causes.

"It's apparent that there has been a problem at the Blue Waters with harassment," said Jim Valade, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Jacksonville office. "Something has to be done about it."

With the state busy on other fronts, Valade said the area will get strong consideration as his agency creates its short list of sanctuaries and refuges needed around the state. Because of a settlement in a lawsuit with a variety of environmental groups including Save the Manatee Club, the federal agency is trying to meet an April deadline to publish that list in the Federal Register. "I wouldn't be surprised to see this (Blue Waters) on the refuges and sanctuaries proposal," Valade said. "But if the county comes up with a much better idea, then it could be pulled off."

A voluntary, locally led initiative

Jim Kraus, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, said the Blue Waters is a unique spot. While the Crystal River contains many warm-water springs for manatees looking to come in out of the cold, the Blue Waters is about the only choice in Homosassa.

"There just isn't a spot down there they can go to get away from human presence," he said.

Over time, use of the area by manatees has increased. While average manatee usage in the late 1980s was about 30, by the late 1990s, that number was ranging in the area of 40-50 animals.

"Although everyone is well-intentioned, the manatee-human interaction level and the manatee harassment level . . . demand that there has to be some management response," Kraus said.

When the federal government proposed this idea before, local residents were not supportive. At a forum in Crystal River last month, some people did not see the need for new protections. But there were also plenty who did.

Maidhof said a locally developed manatee protection proposal might just help. Such a proposal would allow more flexibility, wouldn't tie up the state park in extra red tape and could more easily be modified if conditions change.

A proposal outlining Maidhof's idea is scheduled for County Commission review on Jan. 23.

Researchers already know of two areas near the shore in the Blue Waters where manatees tend to gather. Maidhof suggested those be cordoned off from all human activity.

A wider area would then be roped off. The only people who could enter -- whether private boaters, people who rented boats or tour operators -- would be required to have a special permit. To obtain a permit, people would have to participate in special training.

Additional criteria could also be added. For example, there have been complaints that dive boats enter the area and release dozens of swimmers early in the morning while manatees are still trying to rest. One permit provision may be that no one enters the restricted area before a certain hour or if temperatures are below a certain point.

Types of permissible watercraft could be regulated or the area might be closed certain days of the week.

Boundaries for the various areas and actual restrictions have not yet been settled. Maidhof said there is also discussion about charging a small fee to help the county maintain the system and possible fund other related programs including those dedicated to improving water quality.

He said he didn't expect the further restrictions and cost would hurt businesses that use the Blue Waters.

"This would allow a dive shop to provide a better experience for the clients, and I think they and their clients would be willing to pay for that privilege," Maidhof said.

By culling out the people who use poor manners and do not know what they're doing on the water, the experience will be much better for the people who are serious about a good opportunity to view wildlife.

"Those individuals who harass manatees, climb on them, ride them, they are not the locals, and they're typically not the dive shops . . . because they have a vested interest," Maidhof said. "For the most part, the dive shops are trying to control behavior and do things right."

Maidhof said he intends to begin meeting with local business people to find out the level of support for a locally created protection system.

"The bottom line is that the officials believe there is a problem, and they believe that action needs to be taken by next season," Maidhof said. "If we are not able to work out something locally, then it is my belief that the federal government will probably at some time in April present a proposal that will restrict all or part of the Blue Waters."

Another bold protection by Citrus

"We have somewhat of a control over our own destiny," said Tom Linley, manager of the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, who supports Maidhof's suggestion.

"The concept as it was presented is for the county to draft and approve an ordinance that would provide for the same kind of sanctuaries Crystal River has, but the difference is that they would be under local control," he said.

Linley said that manatees' increased usage of the Blue Waters became apparent only in recent years. A major proposal on the drawing board to dredge the area between the Blue Waters and the long bridge in the state park, an area already closed to people, might mean that manatees move away from the Blue Waters in the future.

Linley said the county idea would work because dive shop owners would have additional incentive to make certain their clients are behaving properly. If people on a boat harass manatees and the operator doesn't stop it, that operator might lose his or her special permit.

"It helps people within that area police themselves because right now, they have no incentive," Linley said.

In addition to the federal and local sanctuary ideas, the officials who gathered at last week's meeting also discussed another possibility: posting signs that designate manatee resting areas and ask people to voluntarily stay away.

"You know that 99 percent of the people who see it will do it," Linley said. "If we could accomplish it as a voluntary thing, that would be great. We're trying to get to the people who say they just want to be responsible wildlife viewers."

Linley said he hopes a local plan or the voluntary measures will work. In the past, Citrus County has shown to be in the forefront of many of the protection movements. The county was the first to adopt an approved Manatee Protection Plan and currently has the only manatee sanctuaries in the state.

"If we could do this, once again we could show Citrus County can be a leader in manatee protection as we have already," Linley said. "I'm very encouraged, . . . and I think we can work locally and solve this problem. We all recognize the value of manatees from an environmental perspective and an economic perspective."

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