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.”

 

Sep 172014
 

See ESWR's Federal Register page for more

Public Inspection (scheduled for publication in FR)

FWS says listing Eriogonum kelloggii (Red Mountain buckwheat) and Sedum eastwoodiae (Red Mountain stonecrop) is not warranted at this time.  Species were first identified as candidates in 1975 and 1980, respectively. They occur in Mendocino County, California.

"[T]he location, distribution, and abundance of E. kelloggii and S. eastwoodiae populations coincide with their known historical distribution and have remained stable relative to their distribution over at least the past 30 years. Both species have a relatively long lifespan, and thus their stable distribution and the persistence of the populations over time (1975–2014) allow us to predict to some degree their persistence into the future. We have determined that the risk of threats acting on these populations are minimal: the fire frequency for the area is low (2 recorded and one unrecorded fire over the past 90 years) and the impacts of those fires have been minimal due to the open nature of the habitat being less prone to intense habitat destruction (Service 2014, pp. 23–25). OHV use has decreased due to the designation of the area as ACEC and Wilderness. Mining interests have also greatly diminished due to numerous factors and no existing claims are currently active or anticipated in the future."

Listing S. georgianum (Georgia aster) is not warranted, FWS concludes

FWS releases CCP and EA/FONSI for the Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

FWS releases CCP and EA/FONSI  for the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex, which includes the Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR and Coachella Valley NWR.

NMFS issues Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) to Glacier Bay National Park to take marine mammals, by Level B harassment, incidental to conducting seabird monitoring and research activities in Alaska, September 2014.

Forest Service is preparing the El Yunque National Forest’s revised land management plan (forest plan) and will also prepare an EIS for this revised forest plan