Red tide hit Cortez businesses. They aren’t giving up

Red tide challenged Florida’s coastal neighborhoods, yet residents persevered in the historic fishing village of Cortez.

Water flanks the Swordfish Grill and Tiki Bar on three sides. The open-air deck is home to live bands and hungry guests all year, and general manager Bob Slicker said weekly festivities continued in the face of red tide.

Guests still came for the raffles and the hermit crab races. It was the moments in between — slow lunches and weekdays — that caused business to decline at least 50 percent when compared to last year.

“I’ve seen it worse here than it was this year, but I haven’t seen business worse than it was,” Slicker said.

Unlike the nearby beaches, where scratchy throats and dead fish plagued guests, he said Cortez was largely unaffected by the physical presence of red tide. The village is tucked away, adjacent to constantly flowing water.

But fewer beach-goers meant fewer guests at the Swordfish Grill. It was also the perception of red tide that hurt local businesses, Slicker said, highlighting a misconception about the quality of seafood during algal blooms.

He said four generations of fishermen have lived and worked in Cortez, and that none would serve tainted fish or crabs. They work harder and longer to find a quality catch.

“They don’t want to give up the fishing industry, but they’re certainly not going to sacrifice their quality for a dime, because they’d be out of business forever,” he said.

In an effort to avoid the ever-changing patches of red tide, fishermen are straying from their usual spots and casting their nets twice as often.

Others took up side jobs to pay for Christmas presents, Slicker said.

“The fishermen are our biggest concern, because the tourists will come back,” he said. “The tourists are coming back already. The snowbirds are here, so our business has already picked up.”

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Slicker worked at the Bridge Tender Inn about 12 years ago, when he helped to fill 173 bags with dead fish from the shoreline — another moment in red tide history.

This year was no worse, he said, but it continues to be longer lasting and more widespread.

Swordfish Grill employs about 70 people, and each lives within 3 miles of the restaurant. Star Fish Company, a neighboring market and seafood restaurant, employs about 20 people.

General manager Joe Rogers said he needed only half the staff in August and September, when ride tide struck the hardest, but he made sure everyone had a job.

“We cleaned and we scrubbed,” he said. “I made pretty much busy work for them, just so they could pay their bills.”

The market lost 50 to 60 percent of its normal business when compared to last year. Red tide made appearances on the national news, and Rogers said friends in Washington state and New York City often asked about the conditions.

Rogers is faced with the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. In turn, he shared videos and pictures on Facebook to quell rumors of a polluted Cortez.

He said the current usually removed dead fish soon after they appeared, surprising guests who expected the worst.

Rogers and Slicker both noticed an upswing in business at the start of October. On Wednesday, about 20 guests were eating and taking pictures of the nearby pelicans at Star Fish Company.

Fishing and tourism are the lifeblood of Cortez, and Slicker understood the plight of other coastal regions, such as Naples and Venice, where ride tide started even earlier.

For that reason, he helped create the Florida Restaurant Employee Red Tide Relief Fund. The nonprofit helps service employees during natural disasters.

He also outlined changes that may prevent the need for such relief. Slicker hopes to see the Manatee River restored to its old name, Oyster River, by planting oyster beds and taking advantage of the natural filters.

“They took all the oysters out for driveways and cement and things like that,” he said. “I think once they start realizing, get nature back to where it is, hopefully it will clear up this red tide.”

The concept is slowly becoming a reality through the work of Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START) and hundreds of volunteers.

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He said red tide, which naturally develops offshore, is worsened by pollution on the coast. Slicker decried the over-development of local shorelines and the overuse of residential fertilizers, which often drain into nearby waterways.

Snow will always drive people to sandy beaches. Tourists arrived to the same postcard views and, most days, the fresh air they’ve come to expect in Cortez, but red tide is a lingering threat to the future.

‘“We need to make it the way it’s supposed to be,” Slicker said. “If there is anything that is causing red tide to be worse, the state of Florida needs to take a serious look at it and change the laws.”

Marty Tupin is one of the village’s longtime fishermen, and he said many workers are lucky to get five hours of sleep in their everyday lives, regardless of red tide.

More time, fuel and money is often needed to visit new, unaffected locations. Their victories are shared by local business owners, who rely on sustainable seafood for a living.

Luckily, they hail from Cortez — where a sense of community has persisted for generations.

“If you need something, all you’ve got to do is ask,” Tupin said.