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Manatees swim close to the surface and frequently come up for air. Credit: Jim Reid, USFWS.

Service offers refined alternative for access to Three Sisters Springs

Seeks 14-day public review as 2015-16 manatee season nears

A refined proposal to provide access to Three Sisters Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is being released today and it includes three noteworthy changes from an August draft proposal released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

After reviewing more than 2,600 comments from citizens, local leaders and the business community, the Service released a revised draft Environmental Assessment for public comment that it believes better matches up its need to protect manatees with local tourism and business interests and its partnership with the City of Crystal River.

The refined alternative, referred to as Modified Guided In-Water Manatee Viewing or Alternative D, would reduce the maximum number of visitors allowed in the water at any one time from 29 to 13, including required guides.  It proposes changes to how people will access the water and limits access points.  And finally, it proposes to shift responsibility for issuing permits to tour operators and dive shops from the Service to the City of Crystal River.  This is possible since the City is a co-owner/manager of the property.  A Memorandum of Understanding would be put in place that would clearly outline the process and how access would be managed.  The Service will continue to provide training to permit holders and manage permitted access for commercial film and photography professionals.

If Alternative D is selected, the Refuge would immediately implement all components except for the lottery selection processes for both snorkeling, and photography and commercial filming in the Springs.  Those processes will be utilized for the season beginning November 2016. If this alternative is implemented during the current manatee season (November 2015 – April 2016), snorkelers and photographers will be provided access on a first-come, first-served basis.  When the lottery selection processes are in place, the Refuge and the City of Crystal River will widely announce the availability.

“The Service received comments that helped us think differently about options we have to manage access to the Springs and at the same time protect manatees,” said James Burnett, project leader for the Service’s North Florida National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Crystal River NWR.  “That’s why we put together a refined alternative and wanted to provide it to citizens across our community for a second look.  We think it takes into account the variety of the comments we received and helps us improve the management of these incredible animals.”

The Service seeks public review of this draft Environmental Assessment, which can be found at, and at   Comments must be submitted by November 23, 2015.  Comments may be e-mailed to:  The Service anticipates making a final decision in December, 2015.

In October the Service announced it would use the interim restrictions it put in place near the end of last year’s manatee season again this year until the final decision is made in December 2015.  Those restrictions allow the Service to implement the precautionary measures to avert disturbance of manatees from watercraft or other manatee viewing activities while establishing a long-term management strategy.  Refuge staff will be present at the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk between sunrise and sunset to implement the interim measures and manage public access.

Three Sisters Springs is the only confined-water body in the United States open to in-water public access while wintering manatees are present.  Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge manages Three Sisters Springs under a Management Agreement with the City of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.  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 at Three Sisters Springs to take advantage of warmer waters.  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.

Download the Draft Environmental Assessment


Ivan Vicente, 352-563-2088 x211

Phil Kloer, USFWS

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