Open Letter to Dive Training - March/April Cover Article a Disservice

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The Executive Editor has offered to publish a response in the next issue, but I feel that more people will have read the cover article than will read a letter in a subsequent issue. I know Dive Training strives to support the industry and retail shops but they missed the mark this issue. The following is a copy of the letter that will be sent to the Editors:

March Cover Article is a Disservice to Readers, the Industry and the Community

When I opened the box of Dive Training magazines last week I was excited to see a manatee on the cover. I quickly grabbed a copy to read “The Challenges of Being a Sirenian – A closer look at Manatees and Dugongs” by Chris Huss. The introduction, Sirenian History, information on dugongs and manatees was well researched, and for the most part informative. There is a factual error stating that manatees weigh up to 12,000 pounds (5,400 kg), whereas they generally range from 1200-1500 pounds. There are some in the Crystal River area that do top 2,000 pounds and the largest recorded was just over 3,000 pounds.

The article was more incorrect when it stated that, “the Florida manatee was downlisted from endangered to threatened status under the US Endangered Species Act in early 2016.” The US Dept. of Interior announced that it was considering the action and put it out for public comment. A decision was expected to be made in 2017, but as of mid-March 2017, no action or announcement has been made on the decision to downlist or not.

It should also be noted that at least some of the photographs used in the article are dated. One was posted to Facebook in 2014. Another shows a tour group using fins that were retired 4-5 years ago by the tour operator in the picture. Note that almost all tour operators stopped providing fins to guests a couple of years ago.

While those errors show a lack of research and verification, the real problems begin with “A Traffic Jam at the Intersection of Humans and Manatees.” The final page of the article is filled with opinion. The final section was poorly researched and is a complete disservice to the local industry, tourists and residents. There is not a single cited reference or quote. There is no doubt that that some of the residents are less than thrilled with the number of tourists. However, the City and the County would nearly cease to exist without tourism. The Citrus Visitor Bureau states that 10% of all local jobs are directly related to tourism and that it supports 4500 jobs locally. While there are many things to do in Citrus County, swimming with the manatees is the single draw that does not exist anywhere else.

The article asserts that the “unprecedented number of humans swarming...” while it fails to mention that Citrus County is home to about 10% of the entire population of manatees. The author fails to mention that the juvenile to adult ratio is nearly double the state average according to the 2016 aerial survey. Manatees are staying here and they are reproducing more quickly than elsewhere. According to the Florida Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Manatee Mortality database only 3 manatee deaths were from human action in Citrus County in 2016 out of the 110 across the state. Only 16 manatees perished in Citrus compared to 525 total. The residents and tourists are doing their best to protect the manatees and it is reflected in the data.

Dr. Bob Bonde of the USGS Sirenia Project and the Univ. Of Florida has stated repeatedly, “If I were a manatee, I would want to live in King’s Bay.” One reason is that the daily viewing alerts FWC andUS Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) if manatees are in distress and need to be watched or rescued. He and other experts provide training to the tour operators and guides to monitor the manatees breathing, feeding, flotation and activity. This has resulted in several being monitored and a few being rescued in the last couple of months. Many of the local tour operators and staff volunteer to assist in rescues when necessary, as well as in annual health assessments performed by USGS and the Univ. of Florida.

The author did little, if any research on the industry, stating there are 70 companies doing tours. Actually, there are 34 that hold Special Use Permits (SUP) from the US FWS. There are about 8 dive shops in Crystal River, not the 34 mentioned by Huss. Did the author talk to anyone at US FWS? If he had, perhaps he would have been told that the percentage of “Manatee Manners” prohibition infractions by guided guests was extremely low. Further, that the number of infractions while guides were in the vicinity is low because the guides assist in educating the general public. Perhaps, a more reasonable assertion would have been advocating FOR THE INDUSTRY and suggesting that guides be required for ALL swim-with-manatee visitors and not just those of the permitted shops. The visitors on paddle craft, rental boats and personal vessels are the source of most infractions. (Note – this is not out of malice but all guests of the SUP holders watch the Manatee Manners video, are told about the prohibitions, and have assistance in the water. The others do not have the same opportunities to learn the appropriate behavior. It should be noted that the “Manatee Manners” video is readily available from the FWS website.)

The author failed to mention that for the last two years, 2/3 of Three Sisters has been set aside solely for resting manatees from Nov 15 to the end of March. This area is off-limits to anyone for that time regardless of the presence of manatees. The daily monitoring of the conditions (environmental and behavioral) around Three Sisters allows the US FWS to close access when needed. I have not canceled any of my tours and am not aware of any company that has canceled tours because of these closures. The author’s all-inclusive comment about tour operators not finding refuge closures acceptable due to loss of revenue and disappointed customers is a disservice to the industry. While we may joke about “sea cows” being co-workers we see them as far more than cash cows. These are an endangered species and while we welcome the opportunity to educate guests about them and snorkel near them, we also want to protect the manatees and understand the necessity of refuges. Periodic closures of Three Sisters and other designated manatee sanctuaries in Kings Bay cause congestion in other areas. This can lead to the displeasure of residents when they see boat and tour traffic in areas where it traditionally has not been common.

The Kings Bay/Crystal River area is complicated with Federal, State, County and City jurisdictions, licensing, permitting, rules and regulations. A holistic solution for the King’s Bay area is needed, and many operators are working with FWC as well as the community to achieve solutions that protect manatees as well as resident and business interests.

The author closes with, “How do state and local officials promote manatee tourism while also protecting the manatees and the natural resources they rely on for survival? Perhaps only time will tell.” Given the increasing population, higher birth rate and low mortality in Citrus County, perhaps the balance has been achieved and is working.

Mike Engiles
Owner, Crystal River Watersports

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