Feds to boost protection for Florida manatees

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Manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. @bberwyn photo.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes strict limits on commercial access to key winter manatee habitat

Staff Report

FRISCO — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to better protect endangered manatees with new rules at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

With record numbers of manatees wintering in Three Sisters Springs, and substantial increases in the number of people wanting to see the marine mammals in their natural habitat, the rules are needed to limit the potential for “viewing-related disturbance,” according to refuge manager Andrew Gude.

“Three Sisters Springs is among the top three most frequented springs by manatees in the world,” Gude said in a press release. “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 said.

“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,” he added.

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.

The USFS outlined three management options in a draft plan released in early August, with public comments accepted through Sept. 4. The agency’s preferred option would significantly limit swimming with manatees. These rules would be in effect each year from November 15 to March 31.

The USFWS also wants to cut the number of commercial special use permit holders allowed to access Three Sisters Springs from the current 44 to five beginning this fall.

Additional steps 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.

During winter months, manatees gather in large numbers (sometimes exceeding 500), taking advantage of the warmer waters at Three Sisters Springs. 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.

Specific measures:

  • Requiring special use permits for commercial photography and videography at Three Sisters Springs.  Flash photography would be prohibited.
  • Barring any swimming into the Three Sisters Springs using the narrow spring run during manatee season.  Kayaks, rafts, canoes or other floating craft will not be allowed into Three Sisters Springs.
  • Requiring swimmers to enter the springs only from a new floating platform attached to the boardwalk.
  • Requiring all in-water visitors to only wear black wet suits and barring the use of fins.
  • Instituting a standard of conduct for all in-water visitors to promote responsible, sustainable wildlife viewing.
  • Barring swimmers from using the Pretty Sister and Little Sister areas of the water.  Only manatees will be allowed in those two lobes.
  • Requiring all special use permits holders to have a City of Crystal River business license.
  • Prohibiting pets on the boardwalk.
  • Building an elevated viewing platform to enhance wildlife viewing and make the boardwalk compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Supporting the upcoming Southwest Florida Water Management District bioengineering project to stabilize the spring’s shoreline.

The proposed regulatory changes were in part spurred by the threat of a lawsuit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The watchdog grous said the latest steps proposed by the USFWS are a good start, but more needs to be done.

According to PEER, the restrictions need to be widened to include other areas where manatees congregate, and the organization would like to see more enforceable restrictions on access in key areas.

The agency also need to be clear on how the restrictions will be enforced and what the penalties are

“We are glad that the Fish & Wildlife Service now finally admits that it has a manatee harassment problem, but the measures the Service proposes are limited, ambiguous, and almost grudging in nature, and would leave manatees vulnerable to harm,” said PEER Counsel Laura Dumais.

“Fundamentally, the Service should stop treating manatees as denizens of a marine mammal petting zoo,” Dumais said.

To bolster enforcement, PEER urges the Service to deploy comprehensive monitoring by installing a network of video cameras. Save the Manatee Club and others have offered to install and maintain such a system, sparing the cash-strapped agency any expense.

This would serve as a reliable enforcement tool producing admissible evidence of harassment, deter willful violations since people will know they are on camera, help the Service identify any tour operators operating outside the terms of their permits, and produce troves of valuable scientific information about manatee behavior under different water conditions.

“Videos would deter visitor abuse in a way the Service has yet to demonstrate,” said Dumais. “The Service should accept the video camera system proposal to help fix the ‘harassment tourism’ nightmare it has allowed to develop at the Refuge.”

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