The first thing to understand about Crystal River is that there are actually two of them – the river itself and the town of the same name that sits on the shores of the 400-acre lake that forms Kings Bay.
First impressions are not always what they might appear though, and such is the case with the town of Crystal River. With a population of just over 3000 it gives the first-time visitor a feeling of small-town America doing OK, thank you very much.
There are numerous hotels and restaurants, plus a large shopping mall and the area around Kings Bay hosts numerous very nice canal-side homes.
That prosperity derives from two very different sources, the estimated 150,000 people who come to experience the manatees every winter, injecting somewhere between $20m and $30m in to the local economy. Then there are the “snowbirds” – wealthy residents of the north-east American states and Canada who migrate south in the winter months to escape their harsh weather for Florida’s much warmer southern version.
Peel the Crystal River onion however and you will find a lot of lingering resentment among both local residents and snowbirds towards the manatee because of the boating speed and access restrictions in place under both State and Federal law to protect them.
Their basic argument is that manatees have been formally classified as “endangered” under Federal law since 1967.
That was probably justified at the time, but the protection mechanisms have worked so it is time to move the status to “threatened” and relax the restrictions which impact heavily on the local boating community.
Resident groups such as Save Crystal River point to the increasing number of manatees in Kings Bay as the rationale for the change and even went as far as suing the US Fish and Wildlife Service to make the change – forcing them to formally consider it.
Manatee advocacy groups like the Save the Manatee Club have equally strong, but diametrically opposed views, arguing for stronger protection, including making the main Three Sisters Spring a closed sanctuary.
Their basic argument being that there is still a long way to go before any status change can be considered, pointing to the loss of 830 manatees in 2013 because of unusually cold winter weather and pollution induced red tides.
Protecting the Florida Manatee…
The unique nature of the manatee has long been recognized in Florida, with the first state protections against killing or mistreating them enacted in 1893.
Nationally, manatees were the first species to be listed as formally endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, with other State and Federal protection following – all tacitly recognizing the unique status of the Florida manatee.
Further legislation in 1978 recognized the entire state of Florida as a “refuge and sanctuary for the manatees” and established enforceable access restrictions and marine craft speed limits in 13 critical aggregation areas where manatees gather each winter.
Manatees prefer shallow water, swim slowly and because they are mammals they must surface regularly to breathe – which puts them right in the danger zone where water craft are involved.
For most of the year that danger is relatively small, as they roam far and wide in search of the sea-grass that sustains them – so the chances of being hit are minimal, but in winter when they aggregate in places like Kings Bay they are incredibly vulnerable.
Possibly the single biggest life-style attraction in Florida is the “life-aquatic”…
Simply stated – boating in general is extremely popular in the state.
The access restrictions & speed limits in place in Kings Bay and Crystal River are like red rags to a bull to those who argue that the conservation pendulum has swung too far.
The conservationists counter that such restrictions are essential if the unique manatee is to prosper and survive.
A common statistic doing the rounds is that the most common cause of manatee fatality is water craft collision, with about 45% of those fatalities by propeller cuts and 50% because of “blunt trauma” from the boat hull.
However fatality statistics on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s website show that in 2014 “only” 4 of the 12 reported manatee fatalities in Citrus County were due to water craft.
Obviously the conservationists would argue that this shows the restrictions are working, while the resident groups and boaters would probably point to the statistical dis-information bandied around is typical of what happens when that pendulum goes too far!