It is a unique, Florida experience: Visitors to Three Sisters Springs in Citrus County are nearly guaranteed in the winter months to see crowds of manatees and even have a chance to swim or paddle alongside them and get a bit too close. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes that from December to March, there would not be any more paddlers pulling up beside the lumbering creatures in two-thirds of the springs and tour operators would face tougher regulations. The proposed rules stop short of what some animal advocates say the endangered animals deserve, but they are a reasonable first step.
This week the federal wildlife protection agency proposed banning canoes, kayaks and inflatable floats from the eastern and western sections of the springs known as Pretty Sister and Little Sister for the four winter months when the mammals are most desperate to leave the cold of Kings Bay and crowd into the springs, where underground vents constantly produce 72-degree water. In the part of the spring that would remain open, paddlers would only be allowed from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from December to March, ensuring the animals are undisturbed during the coldest parts of the day.
Also on the table are tougher regulations on businesses who depend on access to the manatees. They would be required to have a local Crystal River business license or obtain an exemption. They would also have to provide insurance and a guide to accompany clients to the springs. Also proposed is a permanent ban on any flash photography, unless a permit has been obtained for educational or scientific purpose.
The goal is to limit the odds of the sea cows being harassed, even inadvertently — be it from a flash bulb or an errant oar from an inexperienced kayaker. Public comment is being accepted until Jan. 2. But the agency’s plan is a reasonable response to increasing public interest in the manatees as a tourist attraction. Permitted visitors to the springs have doubled from 67,000 in 2010 to 125,000 in 2013 — fueled in part by the increased access for tourists since the government constructed a boardwalk alongside the water and hired a single tour operator to provide guided access. Before that, the only public access to the springs had been by water. But there’s every reason to believe that pedestrian access is also fueling more return visitors who decide on a second trip that they want the view from the water.
Tour company operators have argued that if the real goal is to eliminate any harassment of animals in the cold months, swimmers should be banned as well. Perhaps. But that’s no reason to oppose these intermediate steps and monitor the results. The wildlife service’s top priority must be protecting natural resources, and this plan shows a sensitivity to the community as well. The manatees have been a boon for Crystal River, but they will only remain so as long as the public continues to respect the animals’ needs first.