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Group Issues Notice of Intent to Prevent "Swim-With" Manatee Programs

Photo of manatees uninterrupted at Blue Spring State Park

On Monday, PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) filed a Notice of Intent to Sue with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service citing safeguards for the endangered Florida manatee need to be significantly strengthened. The notice gives the Service 60 days to take action before the PEER-group is eligible to file suit in federal district court.

One primary objective of the action is to prohibit “swim-with” tours with manatees targeted by the tourism industry in the winter. These swim programs disrupt the manatees’ need for food and shelter in the warm waters of the springs.

Following a petition submitted by Save the Manatee Club and Sierra Club requesting a no-touch policy in Three Sisters Springs, The Marine Mammal Commission sent a letter to Florida Wildlife Service in November stating in part:

The FWS, along with its state, local, and private partners, purchased the spring and surrounding lands in 2010. Since then, unrestricted access to the spring by kayakers, snorkelers, and swimmers hoping to swim with or view wild manatees has often resulted in hundreds of people and hundreds of manatees all crowded into the shallow 1.5-acre spring as people try to get as close to manatees as possible. This crowding and frequent close approach to animals leads to inevitable disturbance of manatee thermoregulation as they respond by frequently moving away from swimmers or fleeing the spring entirely. The only way they can flee the spring is through the narrow 8- to 15-foot-wide spring run through which all swimmers and kayakers must also pass to enter and leave the spring. In the process, manatees are routinely kicked, pushed, chased, and otherwise disturbed by people, both accidentally and deliberately.

Provisions that allow touching manatees in some situations but not others instills expectations among some swimmers and divers that they will routinely have the opportunity to touch animals. This encourages some swimmers and snorkelers to approach manatees so closely that it alters manatee behavior. Fostering this expectation hampers enforcement efforts.

Policies and regulations that allow petting or scratching manatees serve to reinforce manatee behavior that causes them to approach people in other circumstances that place manatees at risk.

An example includes actions such as touching a resting or feeding manatee are prohibited, yet touching a manatee engaged in other activities is permissible, making enforcement of prohibitions more difficult.

PEER is joined by a group of naturalist and eco-tourist professionals charging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with violating the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Refuge Administration Act, which governs management of federal wildlife refuges.

The PEER action would:

• Ban “swim-with” programs and all other contacts that would put humans within 10 feet of a manatee, not just at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge but all across the state;

• Expand no-human-access sanctuary areas so that manatees would have unimpeded access to Crystal Springs and Three Sisters Springs throughout the winter; and

• Designate the entire Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs, and Homosassa Springs as critical manatee habitat – something the Service has long admitted was warranted but has yet to do.

According to Laura Dumais, staff counsel at PEER,

PEER has been previously involved in pushing the FDEP to improve water quality, which helps manatee habitat. They have also issued press releases advising of escalating mortalities over the past few years, one of which was the result of high algae counts. Excessive nutrient discharges across the state cause these algae problems.

When asked about the potential downlisting of Manatees from Endangered to Threatened status, Dumais told Ocean Advocate News:

We oppose downlisting of manatees because the species continues to face grave threats to its continued existence, including boat strikes, other harmful interactions with humans, and ongoing habitat degradation. However, even if the Service should make the ill-advised decision to downlist to threatened status, the species would still be subject to the ESA’s protections and the FWS would still be in violation of the law by authorizing swim-with activities that are demonstrably harmful to manatee survival and recovery.

For those who question the drastic change, Dumais says

Manatees are adorable and inspiring creatures, and it is wonderful when members of the public can participate in appropriate opportunities to observe and learn about them. The boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs in the Crystal River NWR provides an unparalleled opportunity to view manatees in their natural habitat, and many outfitters in Citrus County provide “hands off” kayak and canoe tours that let customers experience wildlife without simultaneously harming it.

Chronicle Online reported that Citrus County City Council became aware of the PEER notice hours before it’s council meeting Monday night – the same meeting city officials unanimously approved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to ban all paddle craft within the springs until March 23.

City council members also approved USFWS to go ahead with its in-water access plan and proposals for next year’s manatee season, with a due date of Sept. 1, 2015.

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