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Blue Waters manatee plan hits obstacles

At issue are key questions about manatee protection, liability and enforcement among various agencies.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2001


HOMOSASSA SPRINGS -- Two serious obstacles have surfaced to threaten the creation of manatee protection rules in the Homosassa Blue Waters.

Just as the county began to explore a manatee protection zone in the Homosassa River, a federal official notified county Development Services Director Gary Maidhof of the complications that Maidhof said could doom the county's effort.

One problem is that a strictly county protection zone could not be enforced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Maidhof said the County Commission does not want the county taxpayers to have to fund a county enforcement effort.

Also, Maidhof said, the county might have to apply for a special federal permit if it establishes an area where swimmers could interact with manatees in the Blue Waters. The so-called "incidental take" permit would imply that the county could be held responsible for any harm that comes to manatees in this area, he said.

"At the very least there is an implication that there would be a legal liability," Maidhof said. "I'm not going to spin my wheels to get a local proposal if I find out that the federal and state agency have issues that we're not going to be able to deal with."

Maidhof is drafting a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking several questions. He wants answers before proceeding with the County Commission's request that he explore the creation of local regulations by talking with community and business representatives.

"I just need some ground rules," he said, noting that the two controversial issues were raised "as an opinion of just one federal official" and he wanted to be sure the agency itself agreed with that official.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been talking about new manatee sanctuaries around the state like the ones currently in Kings Bay. The Homosassa Blue Waters are thought to be a high contender for a place on the agency's short list to establish new sanctuaries, which is expected to be released in April.

The Blue Waters, which is the area of the Homosassa River just outside the boundaries of the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, has become very popular with manatees in the winter for the past couple of years. The number of boats and swimmers has also increased and there have been reports of manatee harassment, which is a violation of federal law.

Last month, federal, state and local officials met to talk about various ways they could handle harassment. Maidhof proposed that the county consider establishing two small no-entry sanctuaries and also a larger zone where entry would be prohibited to everyone except people who have special training and meet special conditions.

His hope was that, if the county created such regulations, then the federal agency wouldn't have to. Commissioners directed him to explore the idea.

Recently Maidhof received electronic mail from Cameron Shaw of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Jacksonville office regarding the county's proposal. Shaw, who has been working on the federal sanctuary proposal, listed the two concerns about the county's plan.

Shaw, who served as the manager for the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge for seven years before moving to the Jacksonville job, said the county would have to tie establishment of any sanctuary to state rules in order to get federal enforcement help.

Without using the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act to create the county sanctuaries, Shaw said his agency will not be able to provide enforcement officers to the area.

"If there is not a cooperative enforcement agreement, then that's also a deal breaker," Maidhof said. He noted that commissioners were quite clear that they didn't want a local manatee protection proposal to cost the taxpayers a lot of money.

"I do not have a navy. . . . I do not want a navy. I do not want to be in the enforcement business," Maidhof said.

Shaw also notified Maidhof that, if the county decides to establish a zone where people can interact with manatees under certain specified conditions, then the county needs an "incidental take" permit.

Federal law says that a "take" of an endangered animal is not permitted.

"The term "take' means to harass, harm, pursue, shoot, wound, trap, kill, capture or collect or attempt to engage in any such contact," Shaw said. The definition is set out in the federal Endangered Species Act.

Maidhof said the news about needing a permit was a surprise to him. He said he wants to explore various ways of accomplishing what needs to be done at the Blue Waters but doesn't want to open the county up to liability.

"I have never dived with a manatee and I have never touched a manatee, but I do not believe that what is occuring in Crystal River and Homosassa is what is intended to be covered under an incidental take situation and I don't want to go that way," Maidhof said. "I see that opening us up to legal challenges and other problems years from now."

The permit idea also surprised Maidhof because he believes that Citrus is already seen as a model of how to protect manatees.

"There is no documentation of cold stress related deaths in Citrus County and there is no documentation of increased or accelerated manatee deaths due to vessels in the Homosassa," Maidhof said. "There is a question why the (permit) door has been whispered for Homosassa when it has not been triggered in the Crystal River."

The Citrus manatee population does not seem to have been harmed by the human interactions and, in fact, is growing, he said. "Where is the data that says there has been harm?" Maidhof said.

Shaw said that the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to be sure that whatever happens in the Blue Waters meets the criteria of protecting manatees.

"I would hope that if they (county officials) decide to move forward to establish some regulations, that we'd have a chance to review and comment on whatever they put out there," Shaw said.

Jim Kraus, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, said the issues Shaw has raised are valid and need to be raised now, early in the process of talking about the regulations. The main concern should be to find a way to protect manatees at the Blue Waters and Kraus said his agency naturally is going to have to follow the federal guidelines set out in the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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