World Environment Day Finds Eco-savvy Hosts in Southwest Florida

The global celebration World Environment Day (WED) capped off its 2014 North American festivities in Sarasota County during a standing-room-only community forum on June 5 at Mote Marine Laboratory, where one message rang loud and clear: WED came to the right community.

Sarasota County was selected as the North American host for WED by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which leads this global celebration each year in six regions worldwide. The county received this honor thanks to the environmentally sound practices of local residents, government, organizations and businesses, and local WED partners have celebrated with more than 55 events since Earth Day, April 22.

On June 5, more than 120 people filled the New Pass Room at Mote – a local marine science institution known internationally for advancing research, education and conservation – to hear from local and international experts about the environmental opportunities and challenges facing Sarasota County and other coastal communities around the world. The event filled to capacity and also drew a wider audience through streaming video on the web and on TV via Access Sarasota.

During the community forum, presenters from UNEP, Mote, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida and the U.S. Green Building Council shared new ideas and perspectives on science and the environment, policy, sustainability, the economy and ecotourism, and then answered questions from the audience.

First, UNEP launched its Foresight Report on Emerging Issues for Small Island Developing States, which detailed environmental issues from the perspective of numerous island nations around the globe. Then local speakers brought the discussion home to Southwest Florida’s coast, highlighting the need to plan for sea level rise, revealing the economic value of Sarasota Bay and sharing opportunities for sustainable ecotourism and for green building.

There was no shortage of questions from the audience, noted Dr. Michael P. Crosby, President and CEO of Mote, who received a thick stack of Q&A cards from the audience and moderated the discussion.

“We expected immense interest from members of this community, and they did not disappoint us,” Crosby said. “Many, many people here are closely attuned to the health of our environment, and our community prides itself on promoting sustainable use of our shared marine resources for current and future generations — that’s why it was natural for World Environment Day to take place here. As an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to science, education and public outreach, Mote is proud to be part of the reason this community is special. We’re an ‘indigenous species’ in Southwest Florida — a home-grown world-class research institution that was born here nearly 60 years ago and has evolved with the full support of our community, while making a global impact for the benefit of our oceans.”

Sarasota County Commissioner Carolyn Mason highlighted many achievements of the community as a whole during a press conference preceding the community forum.

“You don’t have to be a big city to be a leader,” Mason said. “From the perspective of Sarasota County government, protecting the environment is a key economic development strategy, and for many years our residents have seen the value of implementing sustainable practices.” Mason noted that residents have supported the county’s programs resulting in 32 percent of its land being preserved, saving 4 millions of gallons of water per year and improving the health of Sarasota Bay. “While the official World Environment Day celebrations end today, those of us who live in Sarasota County will continue to celebrate our environment every day.”

“We applaud the numerous innovative environmental initiatives which Sarasota County has taken to improve the quality of life of its inhabitants,” said Patricia Beneke, Regional Director of UNEP’s Office for North America. Beneke presented UNEP’s new report on small island developing states and reflected on how much their environmental challenges are mirrored in Southwest Florida. “Given our objective of selecting a host to typify the challenges and successes of coastal communities subject to increasing pressures on fragile ecosystems, we could not have found a more perfect choice than Sarasota.”

Boosting the excitement for WED, the Baltimore Orioles teamed up with Sarasota County and UNEP to promote WED and pledged to continue their long-standing relationship with organizations promoting sustainability in Sarasota County, where the team operates year-round training and rehabilitation facilities, including Major League spring training. Orioles Vice-President David Rovine and The Oriole Bird showed their support by attending various WED events in Sarasota County, and the Bird joined Mote Mascot Gilly the Shark to greet guests entering the community forum at Mote.