Vol 6 No. 25 - March 15, 2006

Cortez woman starts shrimping business

Kathe Fannon is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman, charter boat captain and shrimper whose latest venture is a bait shop she plans to open next to the Star Fish Co. in Cortez. She’s pictured with her husband, fisherman Mike Fannon, and first mate, Pup Pup.

By Cindy Lane
sun staff writer

‘There’s my reason for living," calls out Kathe Fannon to her husband, Mike, who’s working on the docks near her "office" - a charter boat quickly filling with passengers.

Kathe has tried working on dry land, but it never seems to take. That’s because salt water is in her blood, she says. It has to be, if you want to make a living in a dying occupation, which is what she calls commercial fishing.

"If you’re not born into it, it won’t work," she says.
Sometimes it doesn’t work even then. Last year, she tried bait fishing, but a fish-killing red tide that lasted nine months ended that project.

This year, she’s tried stone crabbing with her husband, but something has caused the crab season to drop off to nothing.

Obstacles abound, but no matter who you ask, there’s one prevailing ill wind that put the real stranglehold on Cortez commercial fishermen.

The 1995 ban on gill nets made it tremendously more difficult to catch mullet, the staple food for generations of Cortez families and the source of mullet roe, an internationally-favored delicacy.

"When the net ban came in, I quit fishing," say Kathe, 44, the kind of person who fixes things and is not accustomed to something that can’t be fixed.
"All of a sudden I was committing a crime doing what I’m born to do," she says. "It was the anchor, and they cut the line."

She spent three years working at a restaurant, a bank and other land jobs, mourning her lost career in commercial fishing. Then her husband built her a boat to get her back out on the water. The first trip was rough.

"I started crying. And I’m tough," she said. "I don’t cry easy."
But it worked, and the lure of the sea eventually drew Kathe back to her roots. It’s the only job that feels right to her, partly because of the example set by Jesus and his disciples, she says.

"There’s no higher authority for fishing. ‘Cast your nets on the waters,’ He said."
Kathe learned to fish from her father, Frank Tupin, who learned it from his father, Luther Tupin, who learned it from his father in Texas. Frank didn’t have any sons, but Kathe didn’t mind when he called her "son." Sitting in a classroom, she’d be thinking about where in the water her dad would be, given the tides and the wind and the length of time she’d been cooped up at school.

When her dad started shrimping, she and her mother and two sisters would go out with him to help, seven days a week, she recalls.

It was good experience for her latest venture.

She’s just bought Wally Lewis’ shrimp boat and a truck to haul the shrimp, and she plans to open a bait shop soon next to the Star Fish Co.

Lewis, one of the last three bait shrimpers in Cortez, is retiring, and now it’s Kathe’s turn to carry on the tradition.

Her daughter, Katie Scarlett, 15, might surprise her and become the fifth generation of her family to fish, she says, a hint of hope in her voice. But the salt water in Katie’s veins might be a bit diluted; she was only five years old when the net ban was imposed, and she doesn’t know what it’s like to sit in the back of a boat and pull a gill net with her dad, like Kathe did.

But she’ll know what it’s like to watch her mom come back to the docks with a load of shrimp, and hear her called "Captain Kathe" as she takes out boats for Captain Kim’s Charters, run by Kim Ibasfalean, a Cortez woman who hosts a local public access television program on marine issues, and served as a consultant for a film shot partly on Wally Lewis’ dock.

Being a charter boat captain is not something she ever thought she’d do, Kathe says. It means going out to the Kitchen in Sarasota Bay, where Cortez families could always find food come depression or wartime, and finding fish for sport fishermen, whose influence drove the net ban’s passage.

But Kathe has taken to heart a strategy from the film Gone With the Wind, which inspired her daughter’s name.

"I'm going to make friends with the Yankee carpetbaggers," says Kathe in an authentic Southern accent, quoting Scarlett O’Hara. "And I'm going to beat them at their own game."


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