For Immediate Release
October 16, 1998

Contact: Tom MacKenzie
404/679-7291

MANATEE SANCTUARY ESTABLISHED AT FLORIDA'S THREE SISTERS SPRING

Responding to many reports of people harassing endangered manatees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has established a new sanctuary for the species at Three Sisters Spring at Kings Bay in Crystal River, Florida.

The sanctuary, which was set aside on a temporary, emergency basis last November, covers less than one-fourth of an acre. It allows manatees to retreat from people during their long winter stay in the area. All waterborne activities are prohibited in the area from November 15 through March 31 of each year.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service believes a sanctuary is the only solution for protecting manatees in Three Sisters Spring given the level of harassment that has been observed and reported here," said the Service's Southeast Regional Director Sam D. Hamilton. "While we understand the public's enthusiasm for seeing and enjoying these magnificent creatures, continuous human interaction with manatees forces them to leave warm-water areas and can create serious problems for these animal that cannot tolerate cold water."

"Kings Bay is the most important natural winter refuge for manatees on Florida's west coast and more than 250 manatees winter there," he said. "It is the Service's responsibility, by law, to see that manatees are protected."

The new sanctuary is located at the point where Three Sisters Spring flows into a nearby residential canal and extends north of the canal and west of the spring run. Currently, there are six manatee sanctuaries in the Crystal River's headwaters at Kings Bay that protect approximately 39 acres of essential manatee habitat.

The Service created the sanctuaries under the authority of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act after wildlife managers received many reports of harassment from concerned area citizens, researchers and wildlife managers.

When the Service set aside the Three Sisters Spring sanctuary on an emergency basis, it proposed at the same time to make the designation permanent. During a public comment period on the proposal, the Service received only supportive comments.

Robert Turner, the Service's manatee recovery coordinator, says that manatees use the upper Crystal River area as a refuge to escape the cold.

"On especially cold days, manatees seek out and remain at warm-water sites until the weather warms up," he said. "People wanting to interact with manatees can and do disturb them during these critical times."

Manatees leave these sites when people approach them, encircle them, pursue them, or otherwise disturb and harass them to the point that they become uncomfortable. If manatees are harassed to the point where they cannot find adequate warmth and food, they may die from exposure to the cold.

Hamilton emphasized that educating members of the public, including boaters, divers, swimmers and snorkelers, to the needs of the species is equally as important a key to conserving manatees as the creation of the sanctuaries. He praised dive shop and marina operators in Crystal River for their ongoing efforts to inform their customers about the crucial importance of observing boat speed limits in manatee zones, of not feeding manatees, and of avoiding interaction with the species that disrupts their normal patterns of activity. Local dive shop operators provide their customers with videos and handouts that describe "manatee-friendly" ways to interact with the gentle giants.

Efforts to protect manatees from harassment at Three Sisters Springs are also supported by local citizens, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Marine Mammal Commission, Save the Manatee Club and others who have a keen mutual interest in the well-being of this protected species.

More information on the establishment of the sanctuary is available by contacting Robert O. Turner or William B. Brooks at (904) 232-2580 extensions 117 and 111, respectively.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprising more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.

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Release #: R98-097


1998 News Releases

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