Federal wildlife stewards are suspending a plan that restricts the public from swimming with manatees in Three Sisters Springs in Citrus County after apparent opposition by local elected officials, business leaders, and tourism stakeholders.
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, said reaction on tight new protections for wintering manatees included more than 2,600 comments. The reaction included an "alternative approach" proposed by Crystal River's city leaders.
“As a result, the Refuge is currently evaluating comments and revising the Draft Environmental Assessment based on the public’s input,” Crystal River Refuge manager Andrew Gude said.
Three Sisters Springs is the only confined water area in the U.S. that allows the public to swim with wintering manatees. Last year wildlife workers reportedly counted 100 people an hour mingling in the springs with roughly 500 manatees, touching and occasionally pushing off the lumbering sea cows.
The federal proposal was developed to strengthen protections for manatees against harassment and injury. Manatees are safeguarded under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act but their status is under federal review.
“The comments from the public and our partners were very helpful,” Gude said. “The community’s feedback and suggestions led to our evaluation and revision of our proposed alternative.”
Cold-sensitive Manatees huddle at Three Sisters Springs in the winter to take advantage of warm water and their regular visits have attracted tourists for years. The suspended proposal included cutting tour operators from 44 to five and limiting visitors to 25 at a time. Currently there is no limit on potential swimmers.
Some environmental groups were urging the feds to entirely ban swimming with manatees.
The FWS said a revised plan will available for a public review in a few weeks.
» Cover photo via Tampa Tribune
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