Last in a series of three
CORTEZ – If the state would lift the 1995 ban on gill nets, hearts would leap and boats would launch in the commercial fishing village of Cortez.
But there’s no time to waste daydreaming.
After they woke up from the knockout punch that ended their livelihoods 17 years ago, villagers rolled up their sleeves and got to work, just like they did after the hurricane of 1921, the Great Depression, and the catastrophic red tides of 1947 and 1953 that killed all the fish.
“On Friday, we went to work. On Monday morning, we woke up and said, ‘What are we gonna do? ’ ” said Kathe Fannon, a former commercial fisherman.
They’ve done a variety of things to survive without leaving the water behind.
Some fishermen diversified into grouper and stone crab, said John Stevely, board member of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) and one of the founders of the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival.
“It’s a tribute to the integrity and hardworking nature of the community” that they are still fishing, he said.
Seth Cripe, one of a new generation of fishermen, is putting a different twist on a staple crop, producing bottarga, or mullet roe, for domestic shipment to his California winery. Cortez fish houses have been shipping roe to Asia for years.
Fannon gives eco-tours of Sarasota Bay and Palma Sola Bay; her daughter, a fifth generation native, has recently joined her business as a boat captain on her own boat. Her husband, Mike Fannon, is a boatbuilder and one of the last handful of shrimpers in Cortez.
Kim Ibasfalean, who gave Fannon her start in the charter business, also gives boat tours, based across the Intracoastal Waterway from Cortez in Bradenton Beach. Her husband, Mark Ibasfalean, builds docks and makes films about marine life with his brother, Bryan Ibasfalean, who also is a stone crabber.
Former commercial fisherman Mark Taylor rakes the beaches on Anna Maria Island for Manatee County, as close as he can get to the water without being on a boat.
A member of Taylor’s family is renting out cottages in the village to vacationers.
“I’m glad to see it’s somebody local doing it. Ever since the net ban, it’s made the slow transition to a tourist community,” he said, adding that he can’t afford to buy a house in his home town of Cortez. “It kind of breaks my heart. Now it’s a boutique community. It’s not the same. You can’t be mad at people for liking it for what it is, but it saddens me. I don’t think it would have happened if we’d have kept fishing.”
Karen Bell, office manager for A.P. Bell, one of two remaining commercial fish houses in Cortez – the other is Cortez Bait and Seafood – also has branched out into rentals.
To some degree, Cortez is protected from the destructive effect that large, multi-bedroom vacation rentals are having on Anna Maria Island just across the Cortez bridge, because Cortez village is a historic district, Stevely said.
“The historical overlay will keep the flavor,” he said, adding that Manatee County allows zoning nonconformities so that the few remaining fishermen can keep crab traps, boats and gear in their yards. “That has allowed for the preservation of the working waterfront nature of the community.”
The village’s vision plan, adopted by FISH in 2001, does not allow condos or multiple housing on a single lot, said artist Linda Molto, who heads the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival.
“It said in 50 years, we want it to look like it does now,” she said.
But while Cortez hasn’t lost its historic homes, the change in usage from residential to tourist rental is having a profound effect on the village, she said.
“It’s beginning to lose its sense of place,” she said, with most of the fishermen gone, people installing fences and locking doors, and no barefoot kids running down to the bay with fishing poles.
“It’s so great it attracts people here, then they get here and want to change it. Florida is beginning to look like everywhere else. In 20 years, maybe Cortez will too,” she said. “Is this the only way Florida can survive, to be a giant resort?”