Staying resilient in the face of change is what Cortez does best. That’s a fact that the community is coming together to celebrate this weekend.
The 37th Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival focuses on the “changing tides” the historic village has seen since the 1880s. Red tide, development and pollution are some of the biggest issues, but organizers say a tough group of fishermen didn’t make it this far on accident.
“The fishing industry is subject to many changes,” said John Stevely, an event organizer with the Florida Institute of Saltwater Heritage (FISH). “There’s a threat to the sustainability of our resources, and an event like this just highlights the importance of natural resources and the role they play in our lives.”
While the tide might be changing, the festival is sticking to its traditional roots, with live music performances, educational “Dock Talks” from marine biology experts and more than 60 booths set up by local artists.
Organizers say the two-day event draws about 20,000 every year. Saturday was no different, as crowds swarmed the festival grounds. Nearly 20 food vendors kept the fresh seafood coming, too, serving plates of shrimp, grouper, mullet and more.
Mary Brasher had never heard of Cortez but made the trip from Arcadia to visit the festival with relatives. She left impressed by the shopping opportunities, food and sunshine.
“This is good for the area. If this is the kind of thing they have to offer, they need to keep it,” Brasher said.
One pair of visitors, Linda and Greg Rashotte, hail from Canada. They vacation in Bradenton during the winter and have made a habit of visiting the old fishing village for the festival. On Saturday, they recorded their fourth year of attendance.
“The entertainment is really good and there’s something for everybody,” Greg Rashotte said.
“Supporting locals like this is something we always try to do,” Linda Rashotte added. “All the educational stuff is great, too.”
One of the folks in charge of educating visitors was Angela Collins, a Florida Sea Grant Agent for Manatee County. Standing behind a bin packed full of ice and the very same fish that local fishermen make a living off of, she dispelled a few of red tide’s most harmful rumors.
Collins explained that even during an extended bout of red tide, locals should feel safe eating fish that were caught in the area. The regulations fishermen face are strong, she said, and are enough to keep the public safe.
“Sometimes people stop buying seafood during red tide blooms because they’re worried, but they should not be because our commercially sold seafood is absolutely safe and managed. They wouldn’t be pushing to sell if it would hurt people,” said Collins. “I would say if you can buy it in a store, buy it. It’s going to be well-managed and regulated.”
Supporting a dedicated fishing community like Cortez is all the more reason to keep buying seafood, she said.
“The more people that know about Cortez, the better,” Collins said. “The one thing I can say about Cortez is that they persevere through all sorts of situations. If anyone can make it through, they can.”
As a retired commercial fisherman himself, Mike Johnson, a visitor from Maryland, said he was impressed by the event but urged the government to start protecting water resources from threats like mangrove destruction and overpopulation.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can keep building subdivisions and get to keep eating seafood like we do,” Johnson said. “If commercial fishermen aren’t able to make a living, we’re next.”
That’s all the more reason to join in on the “party with a purpose,” Stevely said. Proceeds from the event go toward the restoration, protection and management of the FISH Preserve.
The Cortez Fishing Festival costs $4 for admission, and children 11 and under are free. Parking is limited throughout the village, but there is a free parking lot on the east side and there are several paid lots. Organizers have also teamed up with Manatee County to allow for a $1.50 each way park & ride from G.T. Bray Park, 5502 33rd Ave. Dr. W., Bradenton.
The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit www.cortez-fish.org. Those interested in learning more about the history of the Cortez fishing village can visit the nearby Florida Maritime Museum, where admission is always free.