Federal wildlife officials could further limit the number of swimmers allowed in Crystal River’s Three Sisters Springs during peak manatee season in Citrus County north of Manatee County.
The Tampa Tribune reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tentatively decided to reduce the number of swimmers to 13 at any one time after conducting a study and consulting with other officials, including the U.S. Coast Guard.
Wildlife officials had originally proposed limiting the number of swimmers in Three Sisters to 29.
Crystal River City Manager Dave Burnell says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife will decide by the end of December or early next year whether to make the number official.
The Crystal River/King’s Bay area is home to 70 springs and is a winter refuge for manatees on the Florida Gulf Coast.
Every fall when the temperatures start to drop, large numbers of manatees make a familiar pilgrimage to spring-fed waters in Crystal River, where the temperature is 72 degrees year-round.
There, they’re met by crowds of snorkelers lined up to get close and personal with the sea cows in their native environment.
Some manatees can be found at the springs almost year-round, but the big concentrations in the cooler months have become an important source of tourism in Crystal River and a reliable source of income for tour boat operators and others who cater to manatee lovers.
“We saw the potential for disturbances with the manatee element there,” said Ivan Vicente, visitor services specialist for the Crystal River/King’s Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Until the decision becomes official, the springs will remain open to swimmers entering the water by land. The area is closed to kayaks, paddleboards and other watercraft.
Three Sisters’ food sources are big attractions for manatees because the surrounding areas of Crystal River have become plagued by pollution, clouding once pristine waters. Recent storms also have washed saltwater into the bay, killing much of the hydrilla — an aquatic plant and a vital food source for manatees.
On Sept. 3, Vicente said, about 40 volunteer Crystal River tour guides conducted a tour simulation at Three Sisters. Two tour guides led two groups of four visitors and three photographers at a time into the springs to see how manatees reacted. Tour operators monitored the simulation with small drones.
After the simulated tour and other feedback, Vicente said, wildlife officials decided 13 swimmers would be the optimal amount allowed into the springs at one time with manatees present.
Some people argued no swimmers should be allowed because they would disturb the marine mammals. Vicente said about half of the Crystal River tour operators agreed with the number, while the other half opposed it.
“It’s crazy, I’ve already had people call and tell me they heard they will no longer be able to swim with manatees,” said Diane Oestreich, who with her husband, Bill, owns Bird’s Underwater, which offers tours swimming with the manatees.
Oestreich said she agrees the springs should be regulated but said limiting the amount of swimmers to 13 is extreme.
“We are not trying to fight tooth and nail to let everybody up in Three Sisters,” she said. “We’re looking for balance.”