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Cortez Fishing Festival nets a crowd

CORTEZ — It’s a festival that continues to net a larger crowd each year.

The Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival began 28 years ago as a way to teach the community about commercial fishing, said Roger Allen, director of Cortez-based Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, or FISH.

“This village really is a special place and commercial fishing is an industry that puts food on American tables,” he said.

Money raised from the festival goes to support and purchase a 100-acre preserve adjacent to the village.

Fishermen wanted to establish the preserve in order to create a healthy habitat for fish and bring back natural species to the area that have decreased due to pollution and invasive species, he said.

“We paid off a mortgage with fresh seafood, fine art, crafts, beer and live music,” Allen said. The nonprofit organization still has two mortgages pay off, he said.

Between Saturday and today, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people are expected to attend, he said.

Hordes of people parked cars down Cortez Road just east of Cortez Bridge, walking blocks to get to the village.

Village residents offered parking in some of their yards leading up to the six blocks where the festival is held.

The admission, which is $2, remains the same as it was 28 years ago, Allen said. The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today.

For some, visiting the festival has become a tradition.

“It’s home. I’ve lived here 30 years. I raised my kids here. I come here every year. They have good food. The little village is so neat. The people are friendly,” said Susan Dagenhart, 56, of Bradenton. “I like the seafood. I like the art.”

Dagenhart had a small red suitcase on wheels she pulled through a throng of people Saturday afternoon.

Her small 2-year-old Yorkie sat perched on top of the bag filled with crafts she purchased at numerous tents that line the streets.

“They have vendors you don’t see everywhere,” she said. “I just like this place. The history of Cortez is cool.”

Fishing started in the village in the late 1800s and the preserve was established when water quality began affecting fish and wildlife.

The nine families who founded the village still have descendants who are still involved in the fishing industry today, Allen said.

The festival also allows people to step back into old Florida and view cottage homes and fishing boats on the shore.

The village has strived to maintain its status as a small commercial fishing site and hopes to remain that way.

That way of life has not been easy to hold on to, though.

Fishermen have faced great challenges with gill-netting laws, encroaching development and polluted waters, said Kim McVey, a Cortez resident.

“We have to keep this fishing village and not allow large companies to take the waterfront away from us. It’s very, very important,” said McVey, who works at Cortez Bait and Seafood, and is also a member of the board for FISH.

“Is it hard? Yes, but we’ve done it. That’s why this is important.”