Three Sisters Springs is an important 1.5 acre manatee wintering area within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Gulf coast, about 50 miles north of Tampa. The Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is an endangered subspecies of the West Indian manatee. These manatees face boat traffic and numerous other human threats as they navigate the warm waters of the Crystal River, as well as upon arrival in Kings Bay, a natural inland lake at the headwaters of the river. Kings Bay provides the animals’ largest winter habitat in Florida, but nowadays is totally surrounded by the City of Crystal River and readily accessible to swimmers, boaters, floaters and kayakers. People naturally like to get close to these gentle giants—unfortunately, close enough on many occasions to alter the manatee’s natural and essential behaviors. In 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued an emergency rule to create a manatee refuge for all of Kings Bay (see AWI Quarterly, Winter 2011), a rule that was made permanent in 2012.
Now, the USFWS is proposing specific restrictions in the Three Sisters Springs part of Kings Bay where manatees—particularly mother-calf pairs—are known to congregate. The springs (and manatees) attracted more than 130,000 tourists during the 2013/4 season. With as many as 450 manatees recorded there in February 2015 alone, encounters with humans are inevitable. The new rule would close part of Three Sisters to humans during manatee season (November 1–April 15); ban kayaks, rafts or other floating crafts from entering the springs area; and cap the number of people allowed in the water at any one time at 13 (including guides, visitors, and photographers). Six refuge staff or designees could also be in the water for purposes such as, but not limited to, manatee rescue and release, research, environmental education/filming, and habitat restoration. In-water viewing would only be allowed between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and the refuge would be allowed to impose emergency closures to protect manatees and/or public safety at any time.
While the proposed new rules would not shield manatees from all harassment, the added protections should help. The USFWS anticipates making a final decision by December 2015, at which time the new rules would be put in place and could affect the upcoming manatee season.