WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made an emergency manatee refuge in the waters of Kings Bay, Citrus County, Florida permanent.
The refuge unites seven existing sanctuaries and protected areas by limiting water traffic on the bay and creating high-speed recreation and transit channels to balance recreation with the needs of the manatee.
Manatee have always flocked to the warmer spring-fed waters of Kings Bay when the waters of the Gulf of Mexico drop below 68 degrees. Manatee-viewing tourists started coming to Kings Bay in the mid 1960s, and, when the friendly creatures were listed as endangered in 1974, a manatee tourism industry exploded in Citrus County.
The industry grew 200 percent in the last ten years alone, according to Citrus County tax records cited in emergency sanctuary restrictions published in 2010.
The rise in tourism has had a significant impact on manatee; the number one cause of death for adult manatee 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, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute website. By comparison, 58 manatees have died statewide as the result of collisions since 1974.
The USFWS 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 further harming the survival of this endangered species.
The first manatee protection areas were designated in Kings Bay in 1980. Additional areas were added in 1994 and 1998.
By 2010 the threat of losing manatee to boat strikes was so severe the USFWS declared an emergency sanctuary encompassing most of Kings Bay and its tributaries.
Last year the USFWS proposed making the bay-wide refuge permanent while maintaining the existing sanctuaries.
In the sanctuary areas, chasing, feeding, touching or intentionally disturbing or distracting manatee is forbidden during the winter months.