Ivan Vicente, 352-563-2088 x211
Tom MacKenzie, 404-679-7291
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:
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.
Please note that comments, including personal information, will become available to the public. You may request at the top of your comments that we withhold this information from public review; however, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so.
The draft EA and related Appendices can be found at: http://fws.gov/southeast/refuges/pdf/TSS-Draft-EA-InWater-Crystal-River-NWR-07312015.pdf.
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