In a statement to the media last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service commented on its findings which were published its Final Environmental Assessment “Manatee Wildlife Viewing on Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Three Sisters Springs, Citrus County, Florida.”
The assessment was in regards to determining the best ways to protect the endangered species from injury due to impacts with watercraft, and was based on information compiled after considering public comments and meetings for the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan over the years going back as far as 2008.
“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.”
Based on this assessment, the Fish and Wildlife Service will be able 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.
The Service has implemented the following actions 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.
Additional information on the Final Environmental Assessment, including the Service’s responses to comments regarding specific measures is available at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/crystal_river/.