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Even Manatees Need Their Space: Proposal to Restrict Public Contact

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015   

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – The public can weigh in this week on strict new rules to limit the number of people who can swim with manatees at Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River.

The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife holds two meetings this week – on Wednesday night for companies that run swim-with-the-manatee tours, and on Thursday night for the general public.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, says his group recently threatened to sue the government over tourists' mistreatment of manatees at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.

"We call this the 'manatee rodeo,'" says Ruch. "Manatees are kicked, ridden, chased. Mothers are separated from calves, people ride the manatees. It's no way to treat an endangered species."

As many as 500 Florida manatees spend the winter in the warm waters of Three Sisters Springs. But last winter, on peak days, they ended up sharing their tiny habitat with up to 1,200 people. New rules would allow only five tour operators, down from 44, and fewer than 30 people, including trained guides, in the water at a time.

Swimmers also would not be able to initiate contact and would have to stay six feet away unless a manatee approaches on its own. Refuge manager Andrew Gude says the agency doesn't want to ban the swim-with-the-manatee programs altogether because they raise awareness, which helps conservation.

"For a lot of people, this is a life-changing experience for them to be able to do this, and we very much understand and respect that," he says. "But we also want to do it in a way that avoids any potential to disturb manatees."

The restrictions do not apply to the rest of Kings Bay, so many tour operators are expected to simply move nearby. The restrictions, if adopted, will take effect in time for this year's manatee season, which begins Nov. 15.

Information about the meetings is on the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge website.


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