Federal wildlife officials said Tuesday they are seeking to implement emergency rules to protect endangered manatees who gather around Three Sisters Spring.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials in Jacksonville want to establish an emergency manatee sanctuary at that spring. If approved, the rule would prevent swimmers, divers and boaters from entering that part of the Crystal River.
At the same time, the officials are beginning the lengthy process of trying to create a permanent "no-entry zone" there, according to Robert Turner, manatee coordinator for the agency.
The moves come after efforts by local dive shops to establish a county-approved sanctuary ran into a bureaucratic brick wall with the city of Crystal River.
Turner said the wildlife service decided to move ahead when it seemed clear the manatee season would begin once again without protections in place at Three Sisters.
"We really needed to do something," Turner said. "We can't allow the same problems to happen there this year that happened there last year."
Actually, the problems at Three Sisters stretch back several years. Visitors, federal wildlife officials and environmentalists have witnessed all sorts of manatee harassment there.
Some people have roused the endangered animals as they slept on cold winter mornings. Others have crawled on the animals or tried to surround them.
Pictures and reports of such activity have received national attention through newsletters and on the World Wide Web pages of the Save the Manatee Club. Even the federal Marine Mammal Commission, which advises Congress on issues relating to marine mammal protection, urged action from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Early this year, the agency commissioned a scientific study of Three Sisters. Researchers spent several days watching manatees and people interact in the congested area just outside the spring.
The researchers saw people kick the animals. They saw a guide push a manatee toward a swimmer so she could touch the sea cow. And they saw a snorkeler sit on a manatee's head to pose for a picture.
Any action that changes the behavior of an endangered species is considered harassment and is punishable under federal law. The researchers concluded that such harassment clearly was taking place.
Fish and wildlife officials did not take action, though. Instead, they waited to see if local dive shop owners could successfully establish a sanctuary.
The dive shops petitioned the County Commission to enact such a no-entry zone, making it clear they wanted the kind of responsiveness that a county rule would inspire.
When Crystal River City Attorney Clark Stillwell heard about the plan, he argued that the council, not the County Commission, should set the rule.
City officials, however, did not have the issue on their priority list.
Given that delay, Turner said, federal authorities have decided it is time to act _ especially since Nov. 15 is the traditional start of the manatee wintering season. The other sanctuaries in area waters are in effect from Nov. 15 through the end of March.
Turner said he hopes his agency will enact the emergency regulations soon; however, he was not sure the rules would be in place by Nov. 15.
"It's really not that controversial, because the people that have opposed sanctuaries in the past support this one," Turner said.
The emergency rules can be in place for up to 120 days, which would keep the area closed to boaters, swimmers and divers for nearly the entire season. Meanwhile, the paperwork to make the area a permanent federal sanctuary will continue through the process for next winter. Part of the process will include a public hearing in the area on the sanctuary proposal.
Turner said if local dive shops can persuade the county or city to set up a sanctuary, then the fish and wildlife service can step aside and let the local rule take effect.
"I just see it is a positive change to afford some protection in an area where the manatees are often moved off in the cold times when they should be left alone," said Ted Ondler, acting manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. "It's long overdue."
John Twiss, executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission, said he was happy that the fish and wildlife service decided to move forward.
"I am very pleased with their position of constructive action with respect to this matter," he said.
The move also pleased Patti Thompson, staff biologist for the Save the Manatee Club.
"It surprises me and it's remarkable that they're taking this action without any pressure by us," Thompson said. "I'm as pleased as I can be."
"I think it's a step forward, a much-needed step forward and I think it should have been done years ago," said Helen Spivey, an advocate for manatees and former state representative. "I hope that they will work with the local dive shops to set it up."
Turner and Ondler said they planned to establish the sanctuary in about the same area already discussed by dive shop representatives. That area would allow the public access into the narrow Three Sisters Spring canal and to the spring, but would close a portion outside the canal where manatees gather on cold mornings.