Manatee Interaction Under Review

When videos of swimmers riding and chasing manatees in Florida’s Crystal River hit YouTube, conservation groups pressed state and federal wildlife officials for tighter restrictions on interaction with the endangered species. That led the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to hold a recent “listening session” on the topic in Citrus County, and more than 60 conservationists, local dive operators and residents packed the meeting room. At issue: How to protect the manatees from harassment and preserve the popular guided snorkeling tours that are a tourism mainstay for the area.

Citrus County is home to the spring-fed Crystal and Homosassa rivers, which include a number of manatee sanctuaries. The rivers are also the only place in the country where swimming with manatees is permitted. The FWC heard a number of suggestions, including implementing a no-touch rule, lowered boat speeds, year-round no-entry zones, a required separation distance and vests that prevent swimmers from diving underwater. “The primary reason we’re all working together is to balance the regulations with the continued opportunity for divers to have encounters with them,” says Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club.

Over the summer, one environmental watchdog agency, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), went so far as to formally petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to ban anyone from swimming with manatees, but in late August the agency denied the request.

As this issue went to press, U.S. Fish and Wildlife was working with the FWC to take steps to minimize manatee harassment throughout the region, and in its response to the PEER petition noted that it was reviewing enhanced enforcement practices. “We are still in the process of gathering information from the public concerning manatee harassment,” says FWC’s public information coordinator Karen Parker.

Capt. Mike Millsap, owner of Sunshine River Tours, says dive operators agree that the manatees need protection from harassment, but they’re opposed to blanket no-touch rules and outright bans.

In Millsap’s opinion, the problem is with private boaters, not guided tours, and what is needed are more law enforcement officers. “I know every captain in our area, and we do not tolerate harassment of manatees. We don’t chase manatees. We don’t entice manatees,” Millsap says.

Saving Three Sisters Springs

One of the biggest threats to Florida’s endangered manatees is shrinking habitat, leading a coalition of conservation groups, dive operators and state and federal agencies to explore purchasing an additional 57 acres of land surrounding Three Sisters Springs and adding it to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

Three Sisters pumps millions of gallons of water daily into Kings Bay, the headwaters of Crystal River, and serves as a warm-water winter refuge for hundreds of endangered manatees. “Public ownership not only benefits the manatees, it also benefits the city of Crystal River and the many businesses that depend on tourism dollars generated by the manatee encounters,” said Helen Spivey, co-chair of Save the Manatee Club. “It’s vital that we purchase Three Sisters.”

The coalition is prepared to offer a group of Tampa real estate developers headed by Harry C. “Hal” Flowers as much as $14 million for the land that he and his partners purchased in 2005 intending to build homes and condominiums. However, the recent real estate downturn may create a problem, as restrictions on the state contributions mean the offer cannot exceed the land’s appraised value. As this issue went to press, Flowers and his partners were reviewing updated appraisals for the land and had yet to respond to the coalition’s offer.

If the developers agree to sell, the conservation groups will have to move fast to claim $1.5 million in federal funds and quickly raise approximately $75,000 in new private funds to fully match state dollars. The final round of fundraising may be difficult, says Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, but worth the effort.

“I’m very hopeful, but it’s going to be a struggle,” he says. “If it works, it will be because we’ve gone to the nth degree to get it done.”

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2009