Commercial fishing still a way of life in Cortez
As I wait in line one recent Saturday afternoon at Star Fish Restaurant in Cortez, Fla., to order sauteed shrimp with hush puppies and cheese grits, and as I look out at the Sarasota Bay, a fisherman pulls up nearby to dock his older, smaller, no-frills boat. He is wearing a yellow jacket and orange coveralls. He appears to have a few buckets full of fish and crabs. He immediately starts to remove one of each crab’s claws—indicating that they are stone crabs, which are eaten for their meaty claws—and then throws the crabs back into the water (they will eventually regrow their missing legs).
When I finally make it through the line, I approach the fisherman to ask if I can take his picture. “Yeah, but I have to keep working,” he says. With that, he’s off with his crab bucket and heads into the kitchen at Star Fish—leaving my photo op idea to be an impossibility. When he returns to his boat about 20 minutes later and sees me standing nearby, patiently waiting, he grunts in my direction and keeps moving swiftly.
Still, in these days of our meals being shipped from thousands of miles away, how often do you get to see the food you will eat being brought in from the sea and delivered to the restaurant? In Cortez, Fla., a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village (population, about 4,400) found on the way to Bradenton Beach, commercial fishing is alive and well, albeit on a much smaller scale than it once was. The town and the adjacent Sarasota Bay have such an old-fashioned charm that movies have been filmed there, including “Out of Time” with Denzel Washington.
Five families from North Carolina were the original inhabitants of Cortez in the 1880s, according to Sam Bell, a tour guide at the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez. Those who lived and fished in Cortez caught scallops, shrimp, mullet, crabs, and whatever else they could find in abundance, says Bell, who grew up in Cortez. Much of the fishing took place with large cast nets. Cast nets make it easier to catch fish like mullet, which are vegetarian fish that feed off the algae at the bottom of the water.
A hurricane in 1921 destroyed much of Cortez. However, its hearty residents rebuilt their fishing way of life. A law passed in the mid 1990s that made it forbidden to use the larger cast nets that were the foundation of many fishermen’s way of life changed things in Cortez. After that law was passed, many had to get by on other ways of fishing. Nowadays, bait fish, stone crabs, grouper, and mahi-mahi are commonly caught. The area still is well known for mullet as well. However, total seafood landings reduced in 1999 to 4 million pounds from 15 million pounds in 1986, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Today, Cortez includes one relatively large fishing company—A.P. Bell—two outdoor restaurants, two fresh fish markets adjacent to the restaurants, a U.S. Coast Guard office, and a boating company. Descendants of many of the original residents continue to live in Cortez. The village is also home to a historical museum that opened in December 2007. It took about six years and $750,000 to rebuild the building in which the museum is housed—it is a former schoolhouse where Bell had attended school.
Local longtime residents and retirees alike work and volunteer at the museum to make sure the Cortez way of life is shared with others. One of the retirees is 93-year-old Bill Baum. Baum, a doctor from Michigan, rebuilds model ships that are displayed at the museum. He also built a diorama for the museum that shows typical fishing scenes when cast netting could still be done in Cortez.
Although Cortez remains a commercial fishing village, its charm comes from its roots to the past, Baum says. “It’s so distressing to see natural Florida get turned into condos,” he says. “Cortez attracts me because it still is a primitive village as it used to be,” he said.
Eating in Cortez
In addition to the museum, you can get a sense of the Cortez way of life by going to Cortez Kitchen (a restaurant that bears the nickname of the shallow water area where fish are known to gather) or Star Fish. On a weekend night at Cortez Kitchen, you can catch live music and have a beer and seafood while taking in the water view.
At Star Fish, you can also take in the water view. (In fact, you can pull up to both restaurants on your boat.) You order your meal by waiting in line and paying cash only. Servers call out customers’ names to bring them their food. Looking around Star Fish, you find wooden handpainted signs that set the mood for the Cortez way of life (example: “Relax—you’re on Cortez time now,” “With a little wine I’ll feel fine,” and numerous other signs that celebrate boozing). You see a poster instructing how to get a bird free if it gets stuck in your fishing line. The air smells of hush puppies and fish. A loud clanging sound occurs when a number of oysters are placed on a large scale in the working area of the restaurant. You see wood carvings of manatee and other sea animals. The carvings are reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest and are apparently created by someone named Chainsaw Charlie. Alas, I have yet to run into Chainsaw Charlie and share with you his story.
At Star Fish, food comes out in boxes, and you enjoy it at picnic tables, some of which are right out in the sun and others which have overhead cover. Most of dishes features locally caught fish. While you eat, herons, pelicans, and seagulls fly overhead or hang out on top of the nearby boats that are nearby.
Cortez’s charm is not lost on Hollywood. At least three movies have been filmed there, including “Out of Time,” “Palmetto,” and “Great Expectations.” One fishing captain says that production of “Out of Time” was held up when he took Denzel Washington on a fishing trip.
Cortez will hold its annual Cortez Fishing Festival on Feb. 19 and 20. It will feature music, seafood, art, and family activities. Admission is $2. Proceeds benefit the local F.I.S.H. Preserve.