WASHINGTON (CN) -The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to make permanent an emergency sanctuary rule it imposed last year prohibiting most human contact with manatees in Florida’s Kings Bay during the winter months.
The move is meant to preserve the animal’s natural habits.
As the waters of the Gulf of Mexico drop below 68 degrees, manatee flock to the warmer waters of Kings Bay where seven existing manatee sanctuaries and refuges can no longer protect the 560 animals that make Kings Bay their winter home.
Manatee-viewing tourists started coming to Kings Bay in the mid-1960’s, and when the friendly creatures were listed as endangered in 1974 a whole industry sprang up around manatee tourism. The growth of this industry has been especially great in the last ten years with revenue from tourism related activities increasing 200 percent, according to Citrus County tax records cited in the emergency sanctuary restrictions.
By 2009, there were 17,601 boats registered in Citrus County, many of which ply the waters near manatee refuges allowing tourists to ogle, and sometimes even swim with, the friendly and curious creatures. While stringent protections exist to protect the manatee from harm, the leading cause of non-natural death among adults is being hit by a boat.
In 2008, eight manatees were killed in Citrus County by watercraft, making it the worst year for human caused mortality in the county since records have been kept. By comparison, 58 manatees have died statewide as the result of collisions since 1974, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Web site.
The agency says that in addition to collisions with boats, human attempts to interact with manatee appear to be drawing the creatures away from their normal breeding, nursing and foraging activities.
Except for in specifically marked boat channels, the proposed sanctuary rule would ban waterborne activity likely to disturb the manatee of Kings Bay from Nov. 15 when the manatee begin their winter residence until March 15 when they tend to return to the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Owners of land on the bay may access their land by water, but they must follow strict speed limits and stick to marked channels.
The prohibitions against chasing, feeding, touching or intentionally disturbing or distracting manatee in the existing protected areas would be extended to more of the bay during the winter months.