Proposed changes to manatee tourism in Crystal River

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to limit access to Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River was met with mostly skepticism during a town hall-style meeting in Citrus County Wednesday night.


The federal agency has proposed limits to the number of tour groups licensed to visit the one-acre spring, to how many divers are allowed to go each time, to how close the divers can get.


"I see a lot of fascism honestly, and dictatorship in what's happening here," said tour guide Casey Males of Manatee Tour and Dive.


He is with one of 44 tour companies that are currently allowed to bring an unlimited number of customers into the secluded but crowded Three Sisters Springs.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like to limit the number of allowed tour companies to five, and allow each tour to take only five people in at a time.


"Not everybody is going to have a piece of the pie," explained Males.


However, Mike Dunn, the head of Manatees in Paradise, does not predict it will hurt business.


"It is long overdue," he said. "When you start respecting wildlife, and people understand that, they are coming to come to your companies."


However, officials at the agency, charged with protecting a national wildlife refuge and protected species, got an earful at some points.


"I live here. I am concerned about the community and the economy here."


But the agency insists the manatees are endangered in their crowded spring, which attracts manatees in winter looking for warm water.


"(There are) too many manatees in one place resting," added Ivan Vicente. "They are in resting mode. In addition, you have a hundred visitors per hour with five hundred animals in a small area that looks like a pool."


Vicente points out rules won't change in Crystal River's other springs.


"We are talking about one acre of body of water in a bay that has 599 other acres."


To access that one acre, the cost of a permit will just about double.


Approaching to within six-feet of a manatee will be illegal, unless it approaches first.


"The manatees belong here, the guides don't," added Dunn.


The comment period will be open for another month, and what they hear could impact the final policies, which some have threatened lawsuits to stop.