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Shutting Swim-With-Manatee Programs: Enough to End Manatee Harassment?

This spring, we reported on a troubling trend breaking out in some protected waterways in Florida: manatee abuse. Everybody loves the not-so-little sea critters — and that's the problem. In waterways around the state, various "swim with manatee" tours are potentially interfering with the manatee's habitat. The problem was evident in a March 2014 incident in which a park official confronted a group of photographers and models snapping pictures with manatees in the Three Sisters Spring. 

Now the government has responded to the problem. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has announced a new proposal for the Three Sisters Springs Unit of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Under the new regulations, the number of tour operators with permits for manatee swims would be drastically reduced. But still, environmentalists say, the proposal doesn't go far enough. 

Under the proposed guidelines, the number of tour operator permits in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge would drop from 34 to five; trained guides would be required to swim with visitors, and swimmers would be prohibited from diving into the water or using fins. 

A good start — but not enough, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group, which had threatened to sue the government earlier in the year over the swim-with groups' disturbing manatees in the refuge, filed official comments with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife regarding the proposal earlier this month.

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According to a release from the group, PEER's concerns were threefold: 

Being too limited in geographic scope. Restrictions apply to just one unit of the refuge and not elsewhere where manatees congregate. In addition, several key measures – such as proposed closures of narrow channels that manatees navigate to avoid throngs of swimmers – are discretionary, not mandatory;

Visitor behavior restrictions are vague and unenforceable. Rather than adopt a no-touch rule and require a six-foot buffer as PEER and others have urged, the Service is proposing mere guidelines with no specified consequences for violations; and

The Service has dedicated no resources to enforce its new restrictions. Internal documents obtained by PEER show Service managers admit they are currently unable to monitor visitor behavior.

“We are glad that the Fish & Wildlife Service now finally admits that it has a manatee harassment problem, but the measures the service proposes are limited, ambiguous, and almost grudging in nature and would leave manatees vulnerable to harm,” PEER Counsel Laura Dumais stated in the release. “Fundamentally, the service should stop treating manatees as denizens of a marine mammal petting zoo.”

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