Aug 052015
 

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

Media Contacts: Ivan Vicente, 352-563-2088 x211, Ivan_Vicente@fws.gov
Tom MacKenzie, 404-679-7291, Tom_MacKenzie@fws.gov

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 crystalriver@fws.gov.

“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/Crystal_River/Three_Sisters_Springs_Manatee_Information.html.

Mar 092015
 

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is planning to file a lawsuit to stop tours that allow people to swim with and touch "otherwise resting manatees," the group said.

The group sent a Notice of Intent to Sue today to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, FWS Director Dan Ashe, and FWS Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner,  contending that FWS has been violating the Endangered Species, Marine Mammal Protection, and National Wildlife Refuge Administration acts "by actively facilitating significant physical harassment of manatees through issuing Special Use Pcrmits ("SUPs") to commercial dive shops for "swim with" programs within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (''NWR''). Additionally, FWS has violated the law by failing to designate Kings Bay, Three Sister Springs, and Homosassa Springs as critical habitat for the Florida manatee under Section 4(b)(2) of the ESA, and by failing to provide sufficient sanctuary and refuge protection areas as mandated by the ESA and MMPA."

"Visitation at the refuge has increased dramatically in recent years, from 67,000 recorded visitors in 2010 to over 265,000 in-water visitors in 2014," PEER said. More than 30 dive shops have Special Use Permits and operate commercial "swim-with" programs at Crystal River, "with tourists touching and otherwise harassing the manatees."

Scroll down for PEER's links. Here is a link to one of the tour companies.

PRESS RELEASE

NEW MANATEE PROTECTION LAWSUIT IN THE WORKS

Posted on Mar 09, 2015

Washington, DC — Safeguards for the endangered Florida manatee need to be significantly strengthened, according to a Notice of Intent to Sue filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). One principal objective of the action is to prohibit so-called “swim-with” tours that bring hundreds of swimmers into small shallow warm-water lagoons to touch otherwise resting manatees.The Florida manatee is one of the most endangered marine mammals in our coastal waters. Despite their size, they have low levels of body fat and a very slow metabolism, making them extremely vulnerable to cold and unable to survive long in water colder than 68ºF. Yet, the rare shallow warm-water springs manatees need in the winter are precisely those targeted by these increasingly popular swim-with tours.

Together with a group of naturalists and eco-tourist professionals, PEER charges the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with violating the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Refuge Administration Act, which governs management of federal wildlife refuges. Today’s notice gives the Service 60 days to take action before the PEER-group is eligible to file suit in federal district court.

“Five years ago, we served a similar notice but agreed to hold off suing because the Service promised to make improvements,” stated PEER Counsel Laura Dumais who filed today’s notice. “In the succeeding years, the problems have only gotten worse and it has become clear that the Service has no intention of taking meaningful corrective action.”

Last week, the Fish & Wildlife Service issued a Final Environmental Assessment for Manatee Wildlife Viewing on Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Three Sisters Springs which contains very limited restrictions on human access and will likely make matters worse by concentrating the hordes of flailing swimmers in areas that the manatees must traverse to reach the limited protected zones. By contrast, the PEER action would –

• Ban “swim-with” programs and all other contacts that would put humans within 10 feet of a manatee, not just at Crystal [River] National Wildlife Refuge but all across the state;

• Expand no-human-access sanctuary areas so that manatees would have unimpeded access to Crystal Springs and Three Sisters Springs throughout the winter; and

• Designate the entire Kings Bay, Three Sister Springs, and Homosassa Springs as critical manatee habitat – something the Service has long admitted was warranted but has yet to do.

“People do not need to pet manatees to learn about or appreciate them,” added Dumais, noting that the Service recently issued a news release threatening fines for harassment of manatees by drones flying high above refuge waters while ignoring daily harassment by swimmers in the water directly on top of them. “We aim to ensure that the Service can no longer avoid addressing this widespread, obvious, and illegal harassment of endangered marine mammals.”

 

Feb 262015
 

News Release (2/26/15 and below))

 

Three Sisters Springs map: Proactive Precautionary
Management Measures of Three Sisters Springs:
In-spring Manatee closures. Credit: USFWS
Higher Quality Version of Image

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Enact Additional Manatee Protection Measures at Three Sisters Springs

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published its Final Environmental Assessment “Manatee Wildlife Viewing on Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Three Sisters Springs, Citrus County, Florida.”

“We appreciate the public’s support for our mission, and we carefully considered everyone’s comments,” said Andrew Gude, who manages Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Lower Suwannee, Cedar Keys, and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges. “Thanks to that input, we hope we have reached the best way to protect manatees, and provide for positive experiences for people wanting to swim with these gentle giants.”

This allows the Service to implement the precautionary measures to avert disturbance of manatees from watercraft and manatee viewing activities for the remainder of the 2014 – 2015 manatee season.

“We will continue to study this complex issue as we plan for long term management in the upcoming Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the entire refuge,” said Gude.

After receiving input from the public, a proposal to restrict in-water visitation only between the hours of 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. was not adopted.  Due to the tidal influence on manatee movements, it was determined that limiting visitor use to these hours was overly restrictive and unsubstantiated.  The refuge will instead flexibly-manage opening and closing the springs on an intra-day basis using observations of tidal cycles and manatee numbers in Three Sisters Springs.

The following actions will now take effect for this season:

  1. Continue to implement temporary full closures to prohibit visitation inside the warm water springs located at Three Sisters Springs during extreme cold weather events and violations of the 12 prohibitions identified by the Kings Bay Manatee Protection Area Rule.
  2. Install an in-water, non-motorized vessel tie-up/disembarking area east of the warm water springs located at Three Sisters Springs, and allow management flexibility to prohibit vessels and large inflatable floats within the spring heads as well as the spring run in order to prevent manatee disturbance and potentially unsafe encounters with swimmers. Refuge staff and volunteers may use non-motorized vessels inside Three Sisters Springs to monitor human-manatee interactions. In-water access by non-motorized vessels for mobility-impaired individuals to Three Sisters Springs during manatee season will be provided through special use permit only.
  3. Guide the public to use the western half of the spring run extending into the warm water spring heads located at Three Sisters Springs to maintain an open channel for manatee ingress and egress.
  4. Create two expanded no-public entry areas within the spring heads by closing the eastern and western lobes known as Pretty Sister and Little Sister located on Three Sisters Springs.
  5. Require a Special Use Permit for the use of any type of flash photography inside the warm water springs at Three Sisters Springs.  Special Use Permits for diffused flash photography will only be issued for educational or research purposes. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Department of Management Authority Special Use Permits will be recognized by Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge for use of flash photography if photographers are a minimum of 20 feet from all manatees.
  6. Amend Special Use Permit conditions for Commercial Wildlife Observation Guides using the warm water springs at Three Sisters Springs to require the following specific stipulations: a City of Crystal River business license or exemption letter, in-water insurance for their clients, and an in-water guide to accompany the clients into the Three Sisters Springs.
  7. Implement an expedited communication plan to actively inform visitors and stakeholders of the proposed action.

The alternatives and scope of the affected environment for this Environmental Assessment were compiled after considering public comments and meetings for the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan.  They included public meetings on February 6, 2008; November 16, 18, and 20, 2010; December 2, 2010; January 4, 2011; July 7, 2011; March 19, 2013; and July 11, 2013.

The public provided about 5,000 written comments during the comment period.  The majority of the comments were non-governmental organizations’ form letters or petitions with multiple signatures.  Comments came from individuals, conservation organizations, property owners, tour operators, business owners, local officials, and other stakeholders.  The majority of the comments expressed support to protect manatees at Three Sisters Springs through varying levels of management.  A few opposed the interim measures, but did not provide substantive data or information for the Service to consider at this time.

Those expressing support generally either supported the interim measures as proposed with some minor modifications, or expressed concerns that it was not extensive enough.  The varying levels of management suggested ranged from complete closure of the springs to time allotments for visitors.

Some comments that were outside the scope of this Environmental Assessment were not responded to, but were noted for future reference during the formulation of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan.   The Service expects to complete that planning effort with the support and input from the community in 2015.

The Final Environmental Assessment (PDF, 2.1MB)
Finding of No Significant Impact to Manatee (PDF, 300KB)