CORTEZ -- Debra Ibasfalean remembers the first year of the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival.
"I made coleslaw in the back of a truck," Ibasfalean recalled. "We used to have a one-day festival with fish, hush puppies and coleslaw."
Now, at the 31st annual event with the theme "Better Fish to Fry," Ibasfalean was one of many volunteers counting tickets, selling shirts and answering questions.
"Now it is two days with lots of food, lots of vendors, and lots of joint effort," she said. "It's definitely a commercial fishing village labor of love."
Approximately 25 food vendors -- offering fish tacos, shrimp dinners, grouper sandwiches and crawfish platters -- are along 119th Street West for the festival that wraps up today.
Karen and Don Bailey waited with their out-of-state friends, David and Doris Williams, to sample Walt's Seafood.
"The reason we picked this is it had a long line," said Don Bailey. "People say to never eat at a restaurant with no cars parked out front."
Karen said the seafood is the reason why she and her husband have attended the festival the last three years. For Don? "The beer."
"We live down the street, so we only have to walk a couple of miles to get here," Karen Bailey said.
Those who aren't so lucky can pay for parking throughout the neighborhood or take a $2.50 round-trip bus ride from G.T. Bray park, 5502 33rd Ave. Drive W. Parking is also available at Coquina Beach with transportation on Anna Maria Island's free trolley.
Pat Weiner and her boyfriend, Victor Faconti, drove all the way from Fort Pierce to attend the festival Saturday.
"I had never been, but my boyfriend has a shirt from the 2010 festival. I started stealing it, but he would steal it back," said Weiner, who was able to buy two of the "Pelican in Boots" shirt from three years ago. "I'm going to trade a new one for his old one."
The two-day event, with live music throughout the day, expects to draw more than 20,000 people. That doesn't surprise St. Petersburg folk artist Morris Johnson, who has set up a booth the past seven years.
"I like the feel of being here in Cortez. It's old Florida," said Johnson, who uses
scraps from boats he builds to create art representing his experiences on the water. "You feel like it's a little fishing village back at the turn of the century."
Johnson is one of 60 artists featured at the festival. Another 20 to 25 nonprofit organizations are represented.
Kim McVey, president of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, said the event, which returned to its original location three years ago, continues to grow.
"The whole purpose of this is the help the fishing industry," McVey said. "We just received a $250,000 grant and just placed a conservation easement on the property to restore it to its natural state and take out the non-natives."
McVey said by doing that, estuaries in the FISH preserve in Sarasota Bay will flourish, creating a better atmosphere to improve commercial fishing.
The organization presented several awards Saturday afternoon, recognizing Compass Self Storage that provides golf cart transportation and First America Bank, which set up an ATM kiosk.
Community Service Awards were given to Soupy Davis, musician and commercial fisherman; Cindy Lane, Island Sun reporter; Patty Banyas, owner of Cortez Kitchen and Swordfish Grills properties; and Cathy Slusser, local historian who assisted in receiving the grant and conservation easement.
Admission is $3 at the gate. Tickets can be purchased for $1 each at several booths, and are required for food and drinks.
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter can be reached at 941-745-7041.