Saltwater Conservation summit gets underway Thursday in Cape Coral

CAPE CORAL -- Florida Sen. Bill Nelson kicked off the 2014 Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Saltwater Summit Thursday in Cape Coral by warning that the environment in Florida remains under attack from oil-drilling interests, particularly the lingering after-effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the oil-recovery technique known as fracking.

Speaking before nearly 100 national eco-officials and media members at the Westin Cape Coral Resort, Nelson said a recent illegal fracking operation conducted in Big Cypress National Park by a "Big Oil" company underscored the need to enforce provisions in the RESTORE Act.

"Florida is under assault," Nelson said. "'Big Oil' illegally fracked in Collier County right next to Big Cypress. How can we confront this foolishness?"

The Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability and Tourism Opportunities and Revised Economies of the Gulf Coast Act was passed July, 6, 2012, to establish a trust fund mainly from British Petroleum fines for spilling millions of barrels of crude oil into the gulf after the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Nelson invoked the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, the summit namesake and one of America's greatest conservationists, in saying nothing is more imperative, short of a threat to our existence or a great war, than being good stewards of the land.

"That's why we must do a lot better job of protecting our resources," Nelson said. "Experiencing the tug of a fish is something a child never forgets."

The summit is designed to discuss a range of ecological issues such as the recovery of the Florida coastal areas from the the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Everglades restoration policy, tagging great white sharks to gain a better understanding of the ocean's apex predators, managing Florida's fish and wildlife habitat, saltwater fishing policies, Southwest Florida youth recreational outreach and reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is designed to referee the bitter debates between commercial and recreational fishing interests in the Gulf of Mexico.

National speakers scheduled to headline segments of the two-day conference, which concludes Friday, includes:

Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation;

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of TRCP;

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army-Civil Works;

Ray Judah, coordinator of the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition;

Rae Waddell, director Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network;

Chris Fischer, OSEARCH founder and shark expedition leader;

Russ Dunn, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration;

Mike Leonard, ocean research policy director for the American Sportfishing Institute; and

Larry McKinney, executive director of Harte research Institute.

Eikenberg echoed Nelson is underlining the importance of the ongoing restoration of the Florida Everglades, which had been severely damaged by the Tamiami Trail blocking the natural ebb and flow of waters. The restoration policy centers around establishing breaks the the Tamiami Trail "dike" to allow waters to flow as Mother Nature intended, Eikenberg said.

"Restoration of the Everglades, one of the most important wetland complexes in the world, has been discussed for decades," he said. "We must get it done."

Nelson said Everglades and Gulf Coast restoration will soon receive billions after a New Orleans judge rules on how much it must pay for its massive spill after being found "grossly negligent" by the court.

"We're just beginning to see the impacts of that spill," Nelson said. "We've lost fish, oysters and an entire tourism season. The RESTORE Act is going to change that. The biggest wad of money is still to come form the New Orleans case."