CORTEZ -- Of more than 40 submissions vying for a $400,000 grant from Gulf Coast Community Foundation, one proposal out of Manatee County's humble fishing village won a spot in the top five.
Put together by a group of 15 and headed by Healthy Earth CEO Chris Cogan, the proposal includes plans to capitalize on what Anna Maria Island restaurateur Ed Chiles calls an "underutilized" part of the region's blue economy.
Cogan's company bought Chiles' Anna Maria Fish Co. and Mote Marine Laboratory's re-circulating aquaculture sturgeon and caviar operation as a part of an effort to produce and maintain sustainable seafood.
While the grant from Gulf Coast Community Foundation would certainly help Healthy Earth's working group accomplish its goals Chiles said with or without the help, they'll continue to "beat this drum."
The group began working together a couple of years ago when Gulf Coast Community Foundation invited Chiles and people from Healthy Earth and Seven Holdings, a venture capitalist firm to discuss how to solve the mullet problem.
"What we think we ought to be doing in Cortez, one of the oldest fishing villages in Florida, is shifting them from a commodity-based model to a value-added model," Chiles said.
He's talking mainly about the way fishers use mullet. Red roe mullet, or females, sell for almost $1.75 per pound and is ultimately used to make caviar. White roe mullet, or males, are often thrown back
into the water because they sell for $0.10 per pound and take up valuable space on boats fishers would rather use for females.
But Chiles and the Healthy Earth Innovation Challenge group see white roe mullet differently than most.
Owner of The Sand Bar, The Beach House and Mar Vista restaurants, Chiles has experimented with serving mullet and said he's received good response. But beyond filleting the fish and making it the center of restaurant plates, he said a whole "hierarchy of value" is left to capitalize on.
"From fresh packing to canning to drying to pickling to fish oil, we can better utilize it," he said.
In order to do so, the group seeks to use the Innovation Challenge money to build a mullet processing plant. Currently, red roe mullet are harvested in Manatee County but sent overseas for production.
Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County parks and natural resources department, said the processing facility is the missing link in using one of Cortez's best natural resources to spur job growth, boost hometown pride and provide an opportunity for re-growth in the fishing industry.
Though he wasn't able to disclose any prospective locations, Chiles said he believes the group's goal is to build the processing facility in Manatee County.
"If I have anything to do with it, it will be in Manatee County and I think everyone feels the same way," he said. Hunsicker also discussed multiple uses for white roe mullet and mentioned making dried fish food, providing omega-3 fish oils for veterinarians to use if the quality is not high enough for human consumption and producing fertilizer.
Good clean industry
"It's a good, clean industry," Hunsicker said. "There's no battery acid or pesticides and it's an opportunity to lift up those who can only fish a couple of months out of the year."
The mullet industry would also be yet another good reason to continue preserving Manatee County's natural resources and habitats, he said.
Currently, the Healthy Earth group is working on a fisheries improvement project and refining their submission materials for the prototype phase of the grant application process. They were awarded $25,000 for the prototype.
Improving area fisheries is an important step to gaining certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, which often opens up a pathway for selling to large or big-box retailers.
The Gulf Coast Community Foundation hosts its first-ever Innovation Challenge this year. While the organization isn't sure if they will hold future such challenges, the response has already been successful said Greg Luberecki, spokesman for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
"The Innovation Challenge has spurred innovative ideas, catalyzed new collaborations and raised awareness of our region's marine sciences economic cluster, or blue economy as we call it," Luberecki said.
The final winner of the challenge will be selected during the week of Nov. 16.
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter@jayohday.