Nashville record-label veteran Chris Stacey has a dream for the Tortuga Music Festival, and it has nothing to do with music.
Not that the music isn’t a focus: The lineup at this year’s festival, returning to Fort Lauderdale Beach Park Friday-Sunday, April 6-8, includes two major acts that were left on Stacey’s to-do list for the country-music event he created six years ago, Florida Georgia Line and Keith Urban.
With those additions, all the artists on Billboard’s list of top-selling country-music albums of 2017 will have played Tortuga, last year named the Festival of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.
But the genesis of Stacey’s festival goes back to the ocean, specifically the reef off the festival site, where the part-time Fort Lauderdale resident was free diving when he conceived of the idea of using the promotional platform of country-music’s biggest stars to support his other passion, ocean conservation.
The day before his epiphany, Stacey had seen “The Cove,” an Oscar-winning 2009 documentary about Japanese dolphin hunting through the eyes of Miami activist Ric O’Barry, founder of the Dolphin Project.
“I was stunned about how much I didn’t know. I’m a relatively well-read human being and try to stay current on facts, but when I really started peeling the layers of the onion back, it just made me cry,” Stacey says. “When you start learning how much trash is going into the ocean, or how many sharks are killed every year, or how much the light pollution affects the turtles, it’s just incredible what we’re doing to our environment. And I didn’t know.”
Under the flag of his Rock the Ocean Foundation, every year Stacey gathers some of the world’s leading environmental and ocean-research organizations in the Conservation Village in the center of the Tortuga grounds. The foundation covers all costs associated with their appearance, and the organizations receive a portion of festival proceeds.
Stacey has found no shortage of enthusiasm for the cause among country-music royalty, including one of this year’s headliners, Keith Urban, who has made a video for Rock the Ocean and donated several guitars to be auctioned.
A backstage conversation with Zac Brown at Tortuga 2015 resulted in an invitation from Stacey to go see “some conservation stuff.” A few months later, Stacey and Brown were in the water in the Bahamas with representatives of Sharks4Kids, an organization that can be found in the Conservation Village this weekend.
“We put him right in the water with sharks, and it blew his mind,” Stacey says, smiling.
With T-shirts emblazoned with the symbol of a sea turtle, Tortuga wears its environmental concerns on its sleeve. Stacey acknowledges that demands a higher standard for how the festival addresses its environmental impact.
So no plastic straw for you at Tortuga this year. No plastic bottles of water, either. They’ll come in more environment-friendly aluminum. Just another incremental step toward making Tortuga a 100-percent sustainable event, Stacey says.
“We really took it upon ourselves to try to be industry-leading and reduce our plastic usage. Little elements that the fans hopefully will notice, but it won’t have some huge impact on their enjoyability of the festival,” Stacey says.
To that end, if you really need one, there will be paper, marine-degradable straws available. But they won’t be volunteered — you’ll have to ask for one.
Ending a five-year partnership with festival promoter Huka Entertainment, Stacey has returned to a hands-on management role at Tortuga 2018, putting a renewed emphasis on its relationship to the environment. Last year, the festival diverted 65 percent of its waste, or 150,000 pounds, from landfills through recycling. Stacey says his ultimate goal is to be a “zero-waste event.”
Since its inception, Tortuga has worked with a company called Clean Vibes on waste management, recycling and cleanup. Among other festivals on the company’s roster is the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco, where Clean Vibes reported 91 percent of waste diverted from landfills in 2016.
A new partner for Stacey at this year’s festival is Live Nation, the global concert-promoting behemoth that also has its own sustainability department.
“It’s hard to produce an environment where people can be comfortable and safe and all that stuff without leaving a little bit of a footprint,” Stacey says, “but I want this event to be a leader within the music industry of what can be done to make an event sustainable. We’re working really hard with Live Nation this year to make changes that will lead us closer to that goal.”
Lucy August-Perna, Live Nation’s sustainability manager, came to the company after running green programs on tours by the likes of U2 and the Dave Matthews Band, where she led teams digging through trash bags to separate recyclable material from garbage. She still does.
That frustrating process can be reduced by making it easy for people to recycle, something she’s monitoring at Tortuga.
“You’ve got to have good bins, with good signs,” August-Perna says. “For the most part, I think people tend to do the right thing. It gets messy when the signs are confusing and the bins are the same color.”
August-Perna calls the organizers of Tortuga “true eco-warriors who were already doing some really cool stuff.”
The plastic ban was an obvious first target, she says, due to the harm it causes in the world’s oceans. Plastic straws are among the most numerous pieces of trash found in a typical beach cleanup, she says.
“The equivalent of a Dumpster truck worth of plastic is dumped into the ocean every second. I mean, it’s just crazy,” she says.
The main impediment to reaching Stacey’s goal of a 100-percent sustainable Tortuga is the lack of a site to receive its compostable waste, including compostable serviceware that Tortuga has requested vendors use. The Outside Lands Festival achieves its 91 percent diversion rate because San Francisco requires composting and has the necessary facilities, she says.
“It’s a bummer. We see this all over the country, where the infrastructure is not quite there,” she says. “That’s been the biggest disappointment, because that’s how we could increase our diversion rate even more.”
When Stacey first proposed putting the Tortuga Music Festival on Fort Lauderdale’s shore, he promised then mayor Jack Seiler he would leave the beach in better condition than he found it.
“You can’t go out and wave your flag for ocean conservation and then leave the beach a disaster,” says Stacey, former president of Nashville-based Dot Records and senior VP at Warner Music Nashville.
Speaking in a top-floor room at the B Ocean Resort, overlooking the festival site, Stacey points out thousands of sea oats that Tortuga volunteers have planted over the years, creating new dunes and turtle habitats on Fort Lauderdale beach.
“I feel like we’ve done a good job,” Stacey says.
Recently elected Mayor Dean Trantalis admits he’s not the country-music fan that Seiler is, but he does like what he’s seen from Stacey, Tortuga Music Festival and the Rock the Ocean Foundation.
“The wonderful thing about the Tortuga festival is it’s not just a music festival. It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness about conservation and, to that extent, people are very respectful of our beach,” Trantalis says. “It’s become a signature event for our city, and I believe they are a good partner in trying to be able to put on a quality event without significantly imposing upon the neighbors.”
This year’s festival will include an expanded Conservation Village, with around three dozen organizations offering educational and interactive displays grouped into five area of emphasis for the Rock the Ocean Foundation: shark conservation, turtle conservation, marine pollution, coral-reef degradation and over-fishing.
Trantalis believes the sunny, casual environment at Tortuga is a sneakily effective way to educate visitors.
“Sometimes, when people say ‘conservation,’ it sounds very dry, boring. But when you put it in the context of a music festival, where people are feeling good about themselves and their environment and the people that are standing around them, and enjoying the moment, I think it helps to cement the feeling of the importance of conservation,” Trantalis says. “I think the Tortuga festival is just such an example of this type of moment that we have in our city.”
Tortuga Music Festival 2018 takes place noon-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday, April 6-8, at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd. Single-day tickets cost $125 or $425 for single-day VIP; three-day passes cost $225 or $1,100 for three-day VIP. Kids 6 and younger get in free. Go to TortugaMusicFestival.com.