CORTEZ — Before a fishing accident took his leg and the net ban of 1994 took his livelihood, longtime fisherman Thomas “Blue” Fulford recalls when a night’s worth of fishing would be the catch of the day for one of five fish houses along the Cortez shoreline.
“I’ve been a fisherman all of my life,” said Fulford, his blue eyes sparkling. “Everything was out there in the bay. I fished it by myself most of the time. I was the lone ranger.”
This weekend, the 78-year-old fisherman was demonstrating the fine art of making and mending fish nets during the 27th Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. And even though over the years Fulford has grown cynical about the commercial fishing industry, his passion still burns for the little fishing village on Sarasota Bay where he and generations of his family have thrived off fishing since the 1890s.
“My father had a grocery store,” Fulford said as he pointed to a location down the street. “You knew everybody by their first name. You knew everybody’s kids. Everybody knew your parents.”
The Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival highlights the village and the fishing industry of the village, past and present. Cortez is one of the last remaining fishing villages on Florida’s Gulf Coast, according to the Cortez Village Historical Society. Its fishing history goes back to the Native Americans and Spanish who first lived and explored the area.
Originally called Hunter’s Point, Cortez was settled in 1890 by the Guthries, Bells, Taylors and Fulfords, some of the first families who came from Beaufort, N.C., according to lore. Many of their descendants, like Fulford, still live in the village.
The Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival celebrates what fishermen do, said Karen Bell, owner of the Star Fish Company, whose family was early settlers.
“It’s an educational tool to let people know what we do,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize what commercial fishermen do for them. They don’t know how it gets from the water to the table.”
The festival is sponsored by the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, or FISH.
The institute was started from the partnership of the Cortez Village Historical Society, Cortez firefighters and the Organized Fishermen of Florida. Each year, festival proceeds benefit FISH projects, according to Roger Allen, historical site manager for Cortez.
The initial project was purchasing 95 acres of undeveloped shoreline that borders the east side of the village, for restoration and preservation, according to Allen. The land has been named the FISH Preserve.
“It’s been amazing,” said Allen. “It has helped us preserve maritime and natural heritage. Now we are trying to help other communities that are trying to preserve Florida maritime history.”
The organization has helped recognize Cortez as a historical landmark. Ninety-seven of its buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s trying to preserve not only the heritage, but the history of the Gulf Coast,” said Ted Adams, coordinator of special events for the Florida Gulf Coast Maritime Museum and a member of FISH. “We want to preserve the maritime heritage of the Gulf Coast,” he said.
FISH has also renovated the 1912 Cortez school house into the Florida Gulf Coast Maritime Museum, with plans to restore wetland habitat in the preserve, and renovate Cortez’s first commercial building, the Burton Store.
The Burton Store was the first place early fishermen brought their catch to exchange for groceries and supplies, and before being rescued, it was set for demolition, according to David Rice, a maritime museum docent and a member of FISH.
“There were small houses, but it was the first large building,” said Rice, pointing to photographs of the Burton Store on the wall of the maritime museum. “It was from this dock that people went in and out of this part of the world.”
Each year the festival attracts more than 20,000 people, according to organizers. They come to sample shrimp, oysters and smoked mullet, a local favorite, and view the many nautical arts and crafts, and numerous displays on marine life and commercial fishing.
It’s the quaint ambience of the historic fishing village that attracts Kelley Tribble and her family, who grew up on nearby Anna Maria Island. Tribble remembers when the festival encompassed one street.
“I can’t believe how big it’s gotten, yet it still maintains the old Cortez flavor,” she said. “This is a can’t-miss every year.”