On February 20, 2015, staff from the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge assisted FWC as part of the Statewide Synoptic Aerial Manatee Survey. Staff counted a total of 1034 manatees along the survey route, stretching from the Suwannee River in Levy County south to the Weeki Wachee River in Hernando County. Only 9 manatees were seen outside of Citrus County waters, while 1025 were counted within Citrus County waters.
The 1025 manatees counted in Citrus County represent 17% of the entire manatee population in Florida (6,063) during extreme cold spells. The 706 manatees counted in Kings Bay represent nearly 12% of the entire Florida population. “These numbers represent a thriving manatee population, especially in Kings Bay and Citrus County in general”, said Ivan Vicente, Visitor Services Specialist at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. “Having 1025 manatees in Citrus County is a success story attributed to the collective conservation efforts in the County. These efforts range from manatee sanctuaries to restricted speed zones, and increased community awareness and advocacy towards the conservation of this magnificent species and its connection to our numerous springs”, added Vicente.
“The Kings Bay community (including the tour operators, volunteers, community residents and conservation Agencies), are collectively doing a remarkable job to help manatees overcome these cold weather events in sensitive areas such as Three Sisters Springs”, added Vicente. Three Sisters Springs was temporarily closed to in-water access for a total of 15 days since manatee season began in November, last year. “The local community played a key role in supporting the closure days, despite the few discrepancies during this learning process”, added Vicente. There have been as many as 528 manatees recorded inside Three Sisters Springs on a cold day during a high tide, according to the recent research conducted during December and January.
Given that manatees practice site fidelity during the winter months, it is likely that these high manatee numbers may be witnessed again next winter season. “Now we know how many manatees are using the springs during manatee season, and it is essential to provide continued protection to manatees, especially in the most sensitive small areas, such as Three Sisters Springs.” Additionally, the ratio of calves to adults found in Kings Bay is 1:5, compared to other areas, such as the Blue Waters where it is only 1:10. “This means that Kings Bay is a very safe place for mothers to protect their calves from the cold by bringing them to optimal resting areas, such as Three Sisters Springs”, added Vicente.
The USFWS is in the process of developing new reasonable solutions to the over-crowding issues at Three Sisters Springs for next manatee season. A new Environmental Assessment for in-water access at Three Sisters Springs is underway and the USFWS intends to involve the community in this process. More manatees are using Three Sisters Springs each winter, while increasing numbers of in-water visitors choose to witness this phenomenon. “The USFWS feels confident that it is possible to develop comprehensive, sustainable wildlife viewing culture/experience in accordance with the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act. Our staff will do what is necessary to continue allowing in-water recreation, as long as we can guarantee that the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act aren’t compromised”, added Vicente.
The exact counts from February 20, 2015 in Citrus County were as follows:
King’s Bay: 586 + 120 calves = 706
Crystal River: 0 = 0
Salt River: 0 = 0
Power Plant Discharge Canal: 3 = 3
Cross Florida Barge Canal: 0 = 0
Homosassa River (Blue Waters): 237 + 20 calves = 257
Halls River 8 + 3 calves = 11
Lower Homosassa River: 1 = 1
Chassahowitzka River: 34 + 4 calves = 38
Mud River 3 + 1 calf = 4
Jenkins Creek 2 = 2
Weeki Wachee River 3 = 3
Total: 877 + 148 calves = 1025
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 150-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses more than 561 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to State fish and wildlife agencies.
(Department of the Interior
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)