Federal agency wants to curtail access to Three Sisters Spring and its manatees

Three Sisters Springs is the only confined-water body in the United States that is open to the public while wintering manatees are present, wildlife agency officials said. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Three Sisters Springs is the only confined-water body in the United States that is open to the public while wintering manatees are present, wildlife agency officials said. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Aug. 6, 2015

It's about to become harder to swim with the manatees in Citrus County's Three Sisters Spring, where thousands of tourists have flocked for years to splash around amid the slow-moving, couch-sized creatures.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled proposed new rules restricting human access to the only confined water body in the United States open to the public while wintering manatees are present.

The proposal would cut the number of tour operators allowed to bring customers into the spring from 44 to just five. While any member of the public has access to the spring now, the proposal would prevent access unless visitors are accompanied by one of the five guides. No guide would be allowed to take more than five people into the spring at a time. Currently, there is no limit.

Flash photography would be banned, and only two contractors licensed by the government would be allowed to shoot video.

"This is a big move," said Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge manager Andrew Gude, who outlined the changes during a news conference.

He acknowledged that what his agency is proposing goes against years of tradition in Crystal River, and said, "Limiting the number of people who can enter the spring will have consequences."

In the past, when his agency has tried to impose tough limits on such things as boat speeds in the summer to protect manatees, the effort sparked complaints from Citrus County businesses, town officials, tea party activists and Congress.

No one from his agency had warned the tour operators that this restriction was in the works, Gude said, nor has the agency explained how the five guides would be selected.

Three tour operators contacted by the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday did not want to speak about the proposal on the record because they feared alienating federal officials in charge of permitting. The agency plans a special invitation-only meeting with the tour operators Tuesday, followed by a meeting that's open to the public on Wednesday.

"I expect a lot of feedback," Gude said.

Under the proposal, the cost of the permits will go up as well. Permits that now cost guides $500 to $600 would be increased to $970 to $1,200 each, Gude said. That would likely drive up the cost the guides would charge their customers.

The public has until Sept. 4 to comment on the proposed regulations, which are designed to protect the endangered marine mammals from human harassment or injury. Both are illegal under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

If approved, the rules would be in effect each year from Nov. 15 to March 31, starting this year.

Manatees are extremely sensitive to cold weather, to the point where it kills some every year. In the winter they seek refuge in the warm water flowing from Florida's springs and power plants, often huddling together piled up like loaves of French bread.

Last winter, Gude said, 500 manatees crowded into Three Sisters Spring. During that period, wildlife agency personnel counted an average of 100 people an hour swimming in the spring with manatees. On some days last winter, the total number of people who squeezed through the spring's 5-foot-wide channel to see the manatees up close hit 1,200, Gude said.

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That was just too crowded for the safety of either the manatees or the humans, he said. Last winter, the agency banned canoes, kayaks and inflatable craft from two-thirds of the spring.

Three Sisters Springs is connected to Kings Bay, the Citrus County waterway that has drawn tourists keen to swim with the manatees ever since Jacques Cousteau featured the town on one of his Undersea World television specials in 1973. It's the one place in the nation where humans can swim with and even touch the manatees. The new rules would have no effect on the eco-tour operators who take people out to swim with the manatees in Kings Bay.

"This is the only place that I know of that we have a tourism industry built around getting up close and personal with an endangered species," Gude's predecessor, former Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge manager Michael Lusk, said in 2013.

In March, the environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a notice of intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over the crowded conditions at Three Sisters, and urged the agency to ban "swim-with" tours by keeping people 10 feet away from manatees.

Gude said these new rules are not related to that potential suit.

"Whether or not their proposed new restrictions are because of our threatened lawsuit or merely coincidental," PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said, "we're happy the Fish and Wildlife Service is coming to view the need for additional restrictions of mass tactile enjoyment of the manatees."

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.