Editor's note: We're posting the full text of this press release because FWS has yet to post it on its web page (which it now has). Some context: The service was threatened with a lawsuit not too long ago by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which alleged that "swim-with" tours violated the ESA, MMPA and National Wildlife Refuge Act. Here's TampaBay.com coverage of FWS emails expressing concern that people were becoming too cozy with the manatees.
Update: PEER says the FWS action is not part of any settlement with the group; PEER is now looking at its legal options, executive director Jeff Ruch said.
FWS news release
Crystal River NWR Complex
1502 SE Kings Bay Dr.
Crystal River, FL 34429
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 5, 2015
Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes Winter Restrictions on Swimming, Paddling with Manatees at Florida’s Three Sisters Springs
Public Invited to comment on proposed changes to maintain safe environment for wintering manatees and people
New long-term management steps are being proposed to address record numbers of manatees wintering in Three Sisters Springs and substantial increases in the number of people wanting to see these endangered animals in their natural habitat.
The Service outlined three management alternatives in a draft Environmental Assessment (draft EA) it released today ranging from no change to current practices, to limiting swimming opportunities, and halting all in-water viewing. The draft EA examines protection measures under each alternative and proposes to move forward with Alternative C - an option that significantly limits, but does not altogether prohibit swimming with manatees. These rules would be in effect each year from November 15 to March 31.
One of the additional measures being proposed to further protect manatees reduces the number of commercial special use permit holders allowed to access Three Sisters Springs from the current 44 to five beginning this fall. A competitive process for applicants would be established as outlined in the appendices to the draft EA. An annual administrative fee is being proposed for the five tour operators who could access the springs and would range between $970 and $1,200. The additional proposed management steps would only apply to the 57-acre Three Sisters Springs cooperatively managed by the Service, the City of Crystal River, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The public is invited to comment on these proposals within a 30-day comment period ending September 4. Comments may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Three Sisters Springs is among the top three most frequented springs by manatees in the world,” said Andrew Gude, manager of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. “It is also the only confined-water body in the United States open to the public while wintering manatees are present.”
“Understandably, more manatees in the springs attract more people who wish to experience them up close,” Gude continued. “We need to ensure human-to-manatee interactions occur in ways that limits potential viewing-related disturbance, while also making the most of this unique opportunity to strengthen support for these gentle and giant animals.”
Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, both of which prohibit ‘take’ – a term broadly meaning harm, including killing, injuring, and harassing.
During winter months, manatees gather in large numbers (sometimes exceeding 500), taking advantage of the warmer waters at Three Sisters Springs, part of the Service’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Crowding paddlers and snorkelers taking the opportunity to get close to the manatees in the confined habitat of the springs may unintentionally displace manatees or otherwise affect their natural behaviors.
Additional steps outlined in Alternative C would provide a safer environment for manatees and people alike by limiting the number of people allowed to be in the water with the manatees in the springs at any one time, further restricting interactions with the animals, and reducing the number of tour operators permitted to lead swimming tours within the refuge.
Specifically, the new measures proposed in the draft EA’s preferred alternative (Alternative C) include:
- Reducing the number of special use permits issued to in-water tour operators from 44 to five at Three Sisters Springs with each permit limiting the number of swimmers to four plus a certified guide per allotted time per visit. This means that no more than 29 swimmers will be allowed in the springs at a time. This may include: 20 swimmers supervised by five guides. It also provides for two photographers supervised by two guides. As manager of the springs, the Service may authorize additional in-water access for research and management purposes on a case-by-case basis.
- Requiring special use permits for commercial photography and videography at Three Sisters Springs. Flash photography would be prohibited.
- Barring any swimming into the Three Sisters Springs using the narrow spring run during manatee season. Kayaks, rafts, canoes or other floating craft will not be allowed into Three Sisters Springs.
- Requiring swimmers to enter the springs only from a new floating platform attached to the boardwalk.
- Requiring all in-water visitors to only wear black wet suits and barring the use of fins.
- Instituting a standard of conduct for all in-water visitors to promote responsible, sustainable wildlife viewing.
- Barring swimmers from using the Pretty Sister and Little Sister areas of the water. Only manatees will be allowed in those two lobes.
- Requiring all special use permits holders to have a City of Crystal River business license.
- Prohibiting pets on the boardwalk.
- Building an elevated viewing platform to enhance wildlife viewing and make the boardwalk compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Supporting the upcoming Southwest Florida Water Management District bioengineering project to stabilize the spring’s shoreline.
To provide the public an opportunity to learn more about the proposed measures, ask questions, and submit their written comments in person, the Service will hold an informational meeting on August 12, 2015, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Plantation Inn (Sable Room), 9301 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River, Florida, 34429.
The draft EA and related Appendices can be found at: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/