Three Sisters Springs

December 3, 2015.  The following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.

To Swim or Not to Swim…..That is the Question.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposes to further reduce the number of people allowed in Three Sisters Springs during manatee season from the previously recommended 29 to 13, including only 8 visiting swimmers or snorkelers.  Furthermore, it would close most of the Springs area to swimmers, require them to wear wet suits without swim fins (thereby greatly restricting their ability to submerge, touch and chase manatees), require that 1 guide accompany every 4 swimmers (to ensure that proper manatee manners are observed, I assume), and restrict swimmer access to 6 hours daily.

Given these and other restrictions, how could 13, 29 or even more swimmers possibly harm this endangered species?

Clearly, the reduced number will harm the endangered tour boat operators.  Good luck to Crystal River City officials who now must choose which of the many boat operators will be lucky enough to continue making a living shuttling swimmers to the Springs.

Many locals believe that the reduced number of swimmers will lead to a decrease in tourism.  Some comments received by the FWS, however, appear to suggest that many, if not most, folks visiting Three Sisters Springs might prefer viewing manatees in a more natural, passive, swim-free setting.  Could curtailing or eliminating the swim-with program actually promote tourism and stimulate the economy?

Well funded animal rights groups throughout the country go to great lengths in their efforts to protect and restore listed species.  They wouldn’t hesitate to file a lawsuit to eliminate the swim-with program if they thought it jeopardized manatees.  Their comments, no doubt, prompted the latest swimmer reduction proposal.  As a former biologist, I ran into quite a few of these folks.  Some were so passionate that, if faced with the choice of rescuing a struggling listed species or their mother-in-law, they might very well choose the former.  Of course, they’re also among the most likely to visit Citrus County, hop on the new trolley and spend their tourism dollars.

Other folks I’ve dealt with, including several of our elected representatives, would like nothing more than to “take the teeth” out the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act, and down-list many species in favor of increased development and economic expansion in their states and districts.  If one is elected President next year, we may very well end up with a “watered-down” definition of “harm” and ESA.  Some like-minded folks have already filed a lawsuit to down-list the manatee from endangered to threatened.

So, what number of swimmers in Three Sisters Springs would best protect the resource while maintaining a healthy level of tourism and a sound economy: 29,13, 0, 100?  Might additional swimmers be allowed in the Kings Bay sanctuaries where all public uses are prohibited?  Should the manatee be listed as threatened instead of endangered, in which case a larger swim-with program should be allowable?  Your guesses are as good as mine.

What we do know is that the “magic” number of swimmers allowed at Three Sisters will be determined by the FWS , not through a full-scale Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process, where answers to these questions are more achievable, but through an abbreviated, narrowly-focused Environmental Assessment (EA).  The fact that two consecutive EA’s addressing this issue have been prepared suggests that the FWS has found that its proposed swim-with program will cause “No Significant Impact”, and, therefore, should not require preparation of an EIS.

Gary Rankel