November 26, 1997

Diana M. Hawkins or

Vicki M. Boatwright


In response to reports from concerned citizens, researchers and wildlife managers about harassment of endangered manatees at Three Sisters Spring at Kings Bay in Crystal River, Florida, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to establish a sanctuary for the species. Sanctuaries, established under provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, are areas where waterborne activity is restricted to protect the manatees that congregate at the site during the winter, and where people are prohibited from entering.

The proposed sanctuary would be located at the point where Three Sisters Spring flows into a nearby residential canal and would extend 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 sanctuaries were created to provide manatees areas where they could retreat from people during their winter-long stay in the area. The new sanctuary will cover less than one-fourth of an acre. Kings Bay is the most important winter refuge for manatees on Florida's west coast. More than 250 manatees are known to winter here.

"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," said the Service's Southeast Regional Director Sam D. Hamilton. "While we understand the public's enthusiasm for seeing and enjoying these magnificent creatures, interaction with manatees that causes them to leave warm-water areas can create serious problems for these cold-intolerant animals," he said. "It is the Service's responsibility by law to see that manatees are protected from such threats."

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

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. "When this happens, the animals leave in search of food. 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, touch them, and otherwise harass them to the point that they become uncomfortable. A Service-sponsored study conducted last winter confirmed this type of problem at Three Sisters Spring. If manatees are harassed to the point where they cannot find adequate warmth and food, they may die from exposure to the cold, Turner explained.

The new sanctuary has temporarily been established by the Service for 120 days through an emergency rule authorized under the Endangered Species Act and published in the FederalRegister today. In the Federal Register notice, the Service is also proposing to make the sanctuary permanent. The public is provided with a 60-day period to comment on this proposed, long-term solution. Comments should be sent to:

Robert O. Turner
U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Jacksonville Field Office
6620 Southpoint Drive, South Suite 310
Jacksonville, Florida 32216

"The upcoming winter season and the increasing use of this part of the spring by manatees calls for immediate action," said Turner. "We have had documented evidence of the harassment problem since 1993. We had hoped to see this spring protected through local government action, but we've recently been notified that local efforts have stalled, despite strong support from the local dive shop owners. We are still open to local designation of a sanctuary as we seek a permanent solution to this problem. In the meantime, it is the Service's obligation to move forward with this sanctuary and to propose that it become permanent," Turner said.

Efforts to protect manatees from harassment at Three Sisters Springs are also supported by local citizens, the Florida Depart-ment of Environmental Protection, the Marine Mammal Commission, Save the Manatee Club and others who have an interest in the well-being of this endangered 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, or the Service's Regional External Affairs Office at (404) 679-7289.


Release #: R97-104

1997 News Releases

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