THE ISSUE: Manatee mortality rates.

OUR OPINION: County doing a good job at holding the line on deaths.

One of Citrus County’s biggest tourist attractions is the West Indian manatee, the docile sea cow that congregates in the warm spring water in Crystal River and Homosassa, especially during the cold winter months. The slow-moving mammals have sometimes been the unintended targets of boat propellers and, sadly, Florida Fish and Wildlife researchers say they tracked more manatee deaths last year. As of Dec. 11, 2020, at least 562 manatees had died in Florida. 

Patrick Rose, the executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, attributes increased manatee deaths to more boaters and a decrease in warm-water discharge from power plants as the state transitions to gas power, which includes the Duke Energy facility in Crystal River. The loss of habitat means more manatees will spend the winter in King’s Bay.

Downlisting the manatee from endangered to threatened is proving to be a huge mistake, according to Rose. The risks to the manatee are far more than just from recreational boaters. The dwindling warm-water oases from power plants cause the manatee to roam the Gulf searching for other safe harbors. The increased frequency of red tide outbreaks has damaged the manatee population, as well. The manatee may very well become the environmental canary in the coal mine.

It’s kind of a double-edged sword. The more people who come to Citrus County, the more boats that fill the waterways. County tourism officials were very successful in marketing Citrus during the pandemic, but with the big draw being outdoor activities, more boats fill the bay and rivers, posing a hazard to the slow-moving manatees. More education never hurts, but there have always been complaints about not enough of a law enforcement presence on King’s Bay. Like on a busy highway, just having police presence on the water get boats to slow down.

The closing of the boat ramp on U.S. 19 across from city hall will reduce some traffic on the bay, especially if a new boat ramp is constructed on state property next to the old yacht club. That will push the entry point for visitors further up the river and away from the high concentration of manatees.

At the same time, a new boat ramp with parking at the barge canal is long overdue. That could ease some of the boat congestion on King’s Bay.

Citrus County has been doing a pretty good job at holding the number of manatee fatalities steady. Dive shops in the county are now taking manatee protection more seriously, and have been vigilant about educating people about safety around the mammals. We do the best job of any county in Florida in protecting the manatee.

We are proving that protecting manatees is good for conservation and good for the county’s economy.