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28th Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival this weekend

The area’s most popular nautical festival — the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival — returns this weekend for its 28th year. More than 20,000 people are expected to attend.

The multi-faceted festival, which takes place Saturday and Sunday, celebrates the long-standing commercial fishing village by featuring some of the best fresh Florida seafood, nautical art and live music the area has to offer.

More importantly, the event raises money to restore The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage Preserve. The preserve is almost 100 acres of sensitive fish habitat east of the 110-year-old Cortez fishing village.

“It’s our mission,” said John Stevely, Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent, who is helping with this year’s festival.

This year’s festival theme is “White Boot Ready,” in honor of the fisherman, said Linda Molto, chair of festival planning committee. Molto, who is also a local artist, is looking forward to this year’s event.

Beyond the food, folks and fun, she’s is thrilled for festivalgoers to learn that fresh scallops are returning to the area. In the past, poor water quality killed off the bivalve mollusks that were once popular in the preserve, fondly known as Cortez’s “kitchen.”

“That’s why it’s called the kitchen,” Molto said. “When you got dinner, you would go out and get scallops from the water.”

Families could also find mullet, trout, redfish, mackerel and other fresh-from-Sarasota Bay treasures.

In fact, according to www.cortez-fish.org, families living in Cortez once depended on the seafood that flourished in the water near the village during tough economic times.

During the festival, the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program will present an exhibit on the scallops, return to the area. It marks the largest scallop find in the last 25 years, the estuary program reported.

Besides learning about the historic area’s environmental rebound, festival-goers can partake in a variety of other activities.

Whether you’re going for the first time or for the 28th time, here are tips from Stevely and Molto on how to make the best of the fest.

Getting there

n Get there early. Though the festival starts at 10 a.m., gates open at 9 a.m. “I tell people to get here at 9:30,” Molto said. “Come early and stay all day.” Or, if you can’t get there early come a little later in the day to avoid the heavy crowds, said Stevely.

n The best parking can be found east of the village off Cortez Road, though it’s about a 10-15 minute walk. The earlier you come, the better your chance will be to utilize free parking. Arrive later, and nearby neighbors might allow you to park on their lawn, but for a price.

n Take a shuttle for $2 round trip to avoid traffic. The shuttle comes about every 15 minutes to off-site parking at a new location this year, the Cortez Commons shopping plaza on the corner of Cortez Road and 59th Street West, in Bradenton and also at Coquina Beach. Parking will not be offered at Sugg Middle School.

Entertainment

n This year’s line-up includes Richard Culbreath, Sunshine Express Cloggers, The Crackerbillys, Soul R Coaster, Triad Folk Band, Manatee River Bluegrass Band and The Wheedles.

n Popular Cortez native/vocalist Eric von Hahmann will get his own stage this year on 124th St. Court W. He’s been playing the festival since the age of 14, providing country music with “an island flair,” Stevely said. Von Hahmann frequently plays for Universal Studios on the Porch of Indecision at Margaritaville.

Arts and crafts

n If you’re on the hunt for treasures among the craft vendors, you’ll find exceptional jewelry this year, Molto said.

n More than 50 vendors will display an assortment of artwork.

Food options

n You can never go wrong with the local island vendors, Molto said.

n This year, festival-goers will be treated to fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, the ever-popular grouper, coconut shrimp, jambalaya, gyros, smoked mullet, turkey legs, sloppy Joes, boiled peanuts, the Cortez hot dog, fried fish and other goodies.

Best activities for families

n Pony rides and the bounce house are a big hit with kids in the children’s area, though there will be no petting zoo this year.

n Rock climbing by the waterfront is a popular choice among teens.

n Bring a camera. The area features an abundance of bird life and interesting creatures in the marine life touch tank.

n Whole face-painting will have guests sporting works of arts on their faces all day.

n Adults can enjoy a boat display this year.

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