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Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival celebrates our local heritage

John M. Stevely
John M. Stevely Provided photo

This year marks the 36th Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival – a popular community event that, over the decades, has become an integral part of the commercial fishing heritage of this historic village. Cortez is special. It is the last remaining old-time fishing community in Florida.

The Festival is a party with a purpose. All proceeds go to protection and restoration of environmentally sensitive land that surrounds Cortez. And every year a little bit of magic occurs, as 20,000 celebrants are welcomed to the village by a cast of 200 community volunteers.

There have been many changes over the years, but the central theme of preserving the community’s heritage remains the same.

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Visitors pack the food area at a past Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. Herald file photo

In that first year, Festival organizers, a group of local commercial fishermen, wondered if anyone would attend. A lot of folks didn’t know much about this commercial fishing village nestled along the Sarasota Bay shoreline.

But people came by the hundreds. The fish chowder sold out by 11:30 a.m. Sure, there were some rough spots, but all agreed the Festival was a success. The ambiance of this old-time working community was intoxicating. Women in the village immediately saw that a woman’s organizational touch would make the Festival a bigger success. The number of volunteers and community leaders involved grew, as did the Festival.

There was a huge challenge in the early 1990s with the passage of a Florida constitutional amendment that prohibited the use of the traditional types of net used by the fishermen to harvest mullet, a mainstay of the industry. Would the fishing way of life cease to exist? Was there even a need for a festival?

Indeed, the Cortez community would persevere. The Festival was now more important than ever as fishermen struggled to adapt to new fishing regulations. Hand-thrown cast nets and small seine nets are now used to harvest mullet, and some fishermen turned to stone crab. Highly regulated quantities of grouper and snapper as well as bait fish still cross the docks. And people continue to flock to our local seafood restaurants to enjoy Florida seafood.

In 2000 there was a new challenge: an opportunity to purchase almost 100 acres of environmentally sensitive land adjacent to the village. The property possessed large stretches of mangrove wetland habitat so important to the local fishery resources.

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A volunteer holds up a crab while encouraging visitors to the touch tank to get up close and personal with a selection of coastal creatures during the 2012 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. Herald file photo

Once again, the community went to bat. The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, or FISH (the current Festival organizer) borrowed the money to purchase the property, which is now known as the FISH Preserve. Major habitat restoration projects have been completed and more are planned. The sole source for funding this endeavor was and is the Festival profits.

Today, Cortez is on the National Register of Historic Places. Another key piece of property was added to the Preserve in 2016, but it didn’t come cheap. The Festival remains as important as ever in completing and restoring the property. Believe me, there will be a lot of people anxiously watching the weather the week prior to the Festival.

The village of Cortez invites and welcomes folks to this year’s festival on Feb. 17-18 (www.cortez-fish.org) at 4415 119 th St. W. Admission is $4, kids under 12 free. A $3 shuttle is available from Coquina Beach. If you haven’t been, come see what keeps bringing people back year after year. As always, there will be tons of fresh seafood cooked many different ways. Combine that with music, dancing and the nautical arts, and you have a memorable event. And don’t forget the venerable “Dock Talks” – an opportunity to learn more about our seafood resources and how they are harvested.

John Stevely, FISH board member and festival volunteer, can be reached at 941-795-6012.

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