CRYSTAL RIVER — Citing record manatee deaths this year, an environmental watchdog group wants to close the popular Kings Spring in Crystal River to swimmers and divers.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a notice of intent to sue on Monday giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 60 days to close the spring or face a lawsuit.
Annually, an estimated 100,000 tourists swim with manatees in and around Kings Spring at the headwaters of the Crystal River in Kings Bay. The spring is one of the primary sources for the river for the warm water that manatees seek when temperatures fall.
A record 641 manatees were counted in Citrus and Hernando county waters in January during the extended cold snap. By mid March, cold stress had driven the death count to 431 for 2010, topping last year's record of 429 deaths for the entire year.
"This winter was catastrophic for the Florida manatee, and we need to take steps now to prevent a recurrence," the group's attorney, Christine Erickson, stated in a news release.
The watchdog group members are worried that swimmers drive manatees out of the warm spring water. There have been many documented and videotaped examples of manatee harassment in the area.
The organization in summer attempted to end the "swim with manatees" activities sanctioned only in Citrus waters by the federal agency, but fish and wildlife officials declined to make any changes.
The organization also takes issue with the agency's determination to put off addressing the situation because of "higher priority listing-related actions and funding constraints."
"The service admits that critical habitat status is warranted but inexplicably says that taking simple actions to protect manatees, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the U.S., are not a priority," Erickson said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood said Monday the agency was aware of the notice but had no comment at this time.
Kings Spring is also a popular spot for scuba divers and has long been used for scuba training. Its importance was demonstrated in 1993 when the federal agency designated an area adjacent to Banana Island as a manatee sanctuary while exempting a narrow corridor into Kings Spring and the spring itself.
That 20-foot-wide and 70-foot-long corridor allows swimmers but not boaters to enter the cavernous spring. Because it is a constant flow of warm water, it is an excellent place to see manatees, tarpon, snook and jacks, according to Bill Oestreich, owner of Bird's Underwater Manatee Tours.
"It's a unique place," he said. Because of the depth, "you can watch manatees interact there, chase each other" more than where the bay is more shallow.
Oestreich said that the current sanctuary system allows manatees that want to be with people to come out of the sanctuary. "I think it would be a shame if they ever took this away," he said.
In a related matter, because of the continuing cold gulf temperatures, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Monday issued a request for people to voluntarily stay out of the marked Kings Spring and Three Sisters Springs manatee sanctuaries until April 14. The sanctuaries typically end at the end of March but two weeks ago there were still almost 300 manatees in Citrus waters.
That would give manatees "a little more time" in sanctuaries and allow the gulf to warm a bit more, according to refuge manager Michael Lusk.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.