Without action from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this warm, welcome respite for manatees could be threatened by tourism
Over the next few weeks, Florida’s manatees will be on the move, seeking warmer weather. November 15th marks the official start of winter manatee season, when boaters are asked to watch out for these marine mammals as they swim through Florida’s rivers, bays or coastal waters, searching for warmer waters to help them survive winter’s cold.
When the water temperature dips below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, manatees head for warmer habitat. Historically, manatees relied on springs and other natural warm-water sites. But as springs have been lost or degraded by development and electric power plants have multiplied, manatees have also learned to rely on the outflow from the power plants to provide the warm-water habitat they need. Whether natural or man-made, manatees are in search of a warm place to spend the cold days of winter. Their options are few to begin with, but the real question is: will they be safe when they get there?
A Would-be Oasis at Three Sisters Springs
In the winter, Kings Bay’s warm-water springs host the largest natural concentration of manatees in Florida. Hundreds of manatees will seek shelter in Three Sisters Springs and other warm-water springs in the waters of Kings Bay this winter. Over the past three years, more than 500 manatees at a time have been spotted inside the 1.5-acre Three Sisters Springs during cold days. But Three Sisters also plays host to more than 100,000 human visitors, swimming or snorkeling there to observe manatees. And unfortunately, tourists sometimes mean trouble for these Florida icons.
Three Sisters Springs is the only confined-water body in the United States that is open to the public while wintering manatees are present. Manatees are drawn to the warm springs to rest and conserve energy, but some exuberant swimmers and kayakers disturb the animals. Every winter upon their arrival, manatees encounter crowds of people whose careless behaviors — touching, blocking them from moving, chasing them — can cause the animals to turn around and head back to colder water. If manatees are exposed to cold temperatures for too long, they can go into shock and even die. In fact, this happened to a record number of manatees during a prolonged cold period in the winter of 2010-2011.
With manatee numbers and pressure for access on the rise, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must find solutions that allow manatees to take refuge from the cold and to rest undisturbed. Although Three Sisters Springs is part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, established specifically to protect manatees, its current set of rules falls far short of providing a safe haven for them in winter.
Searching for a Compromise While Manatees Suffer
For years, we’ve asked FWS to provide wintering manatees at Three Sisters Springs with the most protection possible. After all, this is when the animals are at their most vulnerable. The best option would be to close the springs to in-water viewings during the manatees’ winter stay (November 15 – March 31). Tourists could still view manatees from the long boardwalk, they just wouldn’t be able to enter the water.
Unfortunately, the agency has stopped short of making the kinds of changes Florida manatees really need. For the last two winters, FWS put interim measures in place to improve manatee protection at Three Sisters Springs. They kept vessels out of the springs, closed certain sections when manatees were present, and began actively enforcing the rules against harassing manatees. But through the bulk of Three Sisters Springs, visitors could still swim with the manatees (whether the animals wanted it or not), and FWS closed the springs only during extremely cold weather events.
With winter approaching, FWS is planning similar measures for this year. In an effort to strike a balance between the manatees’ needs and the visitors desires, the agency will make day-to-day decisions about whether the springs should remain open to in-water visitors. Factoring in environmental and biological conditions, they will even review the decision several times a day to determine if the waters need to be closed. The agency is trying hard, and these measures will be extremely labor-intensive for its staff. But in our opinion, they simply don’t go far enough.
New Rules Need to Put Manatees First
This shouldn’t be about how many additional days visitors can enter the water with manatees, but about what will give these vulnerable animals the shelter they need. FWS needs to step up and put long-term rules in place to protect manatees at Three Sisters Springs, and that includes keeping visitors out of the water when the manatees need it. The Service’s resources would be better spent providing a high-quality, educational viewing experience for the public from the boardwalk than constantly reviewing and re-reviewing whether or not it needs to close the waters to visitors.
We have recommended that FWS close Three Sisters to in-water viewing during the entire winter manatee season. Manatees already face so many threats and stressful factors. They continue to die in high numbers from boat strikes, harmful algal blooms and exposure to cold. Closing Three Sisters Springs to human use during the winter is a common sense way to help manatees get the shelter they need. FWS has dragged its feet on this for far too long.