Conserving the Nature of America
Press Release
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Enact Additional Manatee Protection Measures at Three Sisters Springs

February 26, 2015


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Telephone: 703-358-2220

Three Sisters Springs map: Proactive Precautionary Management Measures of Three Sisters Springs: In-spring Manatee closures. Credit: USFWS
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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)

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