COVID scuttles fishing festival

CORTEZ – The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) board decided unanimously tonight to cancel the 39th annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival next February due to COVID-19.

The two-day festival, a fundraiser for FISH and its primary project, the FISH Preserve, draws thousands of people each year to the snug north end of the historic fishing village of Cortez.

“Due to the uncertainties, we feel we have to be responsible, however, we’re going to work on a possible scaled-down alternative,” said John Stevely, one of the founders of the festival.

COVID scuttles fishing festival
John Stevely, one of the festival’s original organizers, was among those deciding to cancel the 2021 fishing festival Monday night. – Cindy Lane | Sun

The entrance to the festival is at the Florida Maritime Museum on 119th Street, which leads to a fish house and restaurant complex on Sarasota Bay with one main route in and out.

Once inside, people line up to sample seafood from dozens of food vendors, a challenge for social distancing, as is the possibility of monitoring whether only family groups are sitting together to eat at tables for eight to 10 people. In addition, “There are so many who would refuse to wear a mask outdoors,” Stevely said.

Other considerations were whether FISH could obtain a permit for the event, the health risk to 200 or so volunteers in their 60s, and whether the event could turn a profit if the number of participants was limited. The FISH board has historically been reluctant to raise the original $2 entrance fee, which, after 38 years, is now $5.

“We’ll come back with enthusiasm and we will get through these times,” Stevely said. “2022 will be bigger and better.”

Seafood is the main event at the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. – Cindy Lane | Sun