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Cracker Fest proceeds fund activism in water resources

By Staff | Nov 26, 2014

It looked like your standard outdoor Florida party, which it was, but Cracker Fest 2014 was really an investment in southwest Florida’s environmental health and its impact on the economy.

Proceeds from the Nov. 14 Cracker Fest in Sanibel will benefit the Sanibel Captiva chapter of Solutions to Avoid Red Tide, or START, a nonprofit that has widened its scope of functions in recent years, said Dr. Bruce Neill, chapter president. Cracker Fest tickets, raffle, donations and auction proceeds have for six years funded START, whose work is in preserving and raising awareness of the water and wildlife health in the islands. Cracker Fest is billed as a cultural celebration of Florida, featuring local fare like roasted pork and grits and adult beverages served in jelly jars.

Cracker Fest this year raised some $50,000 to fund the nonprofit, said Neill, co-founder of the Sanibel Sea School and of the Sanibel-Captiva START chapter. START globally has chapters in every continent. A percentage of the Cracker Fest proceeds are funneled back to Florida agencies to help protect the state’s top attractions — its beaches and waterways.

Aside from helping in funding research and awareness for red tide and its impact on tourism and wildlife, START in Sanibel and Captiva is addressing issues like discarded fishing line and sustainable seafood choices, among others.

The nonprofit’s strongest push, however, is in reducing the use of plastic shopping bags, Neill said, which are the only nonbiodegradable product on the market: Americans throw away some 100 million plastic bags annually, recycling just 1-3 percent. Plastic bags congest and contaminate the world’s waterways and require huge quantities of petroleum. Florida has legislated that towns may not outright ban plastic bags, but the door is open to reusable and recycled products, Neill said. California this month enacted the nation’s first ban on single-use plastic grocery bags.

START’s goal in the islands is to make local merchants aware of the waste and lost cash in plastic bags, something bigger chains like Costco and Sam’s Club are addressing. START will also work on consumers, supplying reusable shopping bags to island condo associations, for instance.

Condo renters would pass the reusable bags to the next renter, Neill, said, even signing the bags like a guestbook, giving the campaign a fun twist while impacting the environment.

“That would draw attention to the effort,” Neill said.

START is also campaigning the Seafood Savvy effort, which promotes abundant wild or farmed seafood as an option.

Red tide, however, will continue to be on START’s radar. A 7,000-square-mile bloom in September was reported offshore some 20 miles from Sanibel. Even smaller red-tide blooms cover 300 square miles, Neill said, which in today’s internet age sets off a tsunami of panic and resort cancellations. START uses its funding for the technology to track red tide, giving vacationers accurate updates, he said.

For details, visit START.org, or sanibelseaschool.org.