CORTEZ ‚Äď A dream fueled by the true grit of Cortez commercial fishing families has grown to 100 acres of prime Sarasota bayfront land that can never be developed.
The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) has spent 20 years piecing together the FISH Preserve, and the quilt is now complete, funded largely by the $4 admission fee to the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival.
The preserve is the answer to two questions that weigh heavily on FISH members.
How can Cortez fishermen keep ‚ÄúThe Kitchen‚ÄĚ ‚Äď the part of Sarasota Bay that laps at Cortez shores ‚Äď a productive nursery area for the Cortez staple, mullet?
And how can the fishing village, a federal historic district, shield itself from neighbors peering down from high-rise condos and complaining that their backyards are filled with stone crab traps and old boats?
The preserve is a buffer against development encroaching on the historic village, and its mangrove-lined shore ensures that juvenile fish, including mullet, will have a protected place to grow, safeguarding the fishery for the future, said John Stevely, FISH board member and one of the fishing festival‚Äôs original organizers.
‚ÄúYour FISH Preserve is very impressive. Its economic value cannot be judged in terms of dollars alone. I have seen from many places around the world, communities like the fishing village of Cortez, suffering from the demise of the natural resources base on which they depend. Your project is an important reminder of the vital connections between nature and humanity.‚ÄĚ ‚Äď Ocean explorer Jean-Michelle Cousteau, founder of the Oceans Future Society
The first project in the preserve was removing decades of dumped trash, followed by escorting homeless residents out, securing the perimeter, building foot bridges across wet areas, beginning to clear future hiking and kayak trails, recreating wetland habitat and taking out invasive species and planting native trees and plants.
Next month, heavy equipment will come in and continue the removal of Australian pines and Brazilian peppers in the newest ‚Äď and most costly ‚Äď section of the preserve.
The half-acre is in the center of the preserve, where the previous owners advertised the residentially-zoned property for $1.2 million with the tag, ‚Äúsurrounded by your own private preserve.‚ÄĚ
FISH purchased the land for $180,000 after prospective buyers learned they would have to run electrical and water lines and a curbed road into the preserve before building a dream home, Stevely said, but even that discounted amount was far more than the not-for-profit organization had ever spent on a parcel in the preserve.
Grants have helped keep the restoration work progressing, with the help of partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program.
But the biggest contributors to the preserve are the tens of thousands of people who have attended the past 36 years of the fishing festival ‚Äď and don‚Äôt let a Cortezian catch you calling it a ‚Äúseafood festival!‚ÄĚ
The 37th Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival is the weekend of Feb. 16-17 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days, celebrating the village‚Äôs enduring heritage in the face of ‚ÄúChanging Tides.‚ÄĚ
From the gill net ban 25 years ago, which drastically reduced mullet fishing in Florida, to runaway development, overpopulation, pollution, mangrove destruction, foreign seafood imports and this year‚Äôs ongoing red tide, the Cortez commercial fishing tradition has survived, said festival organizer and artist Rose Lipke, who designed this year‚Äôs festival logo, an octopus juggling all the issues.
The festival will kick off with the blessing of the Cortez fishing fleet at the docks on Saturday at 10 a.m., followed by two days of live music, nautical arts and crafts, Dock Talks about different types of fishing vessels, a marine touch tank, and, of course, fresh seafood.
The main admission gate is at the Florida Maritime Museum, 4415 119th St. W. with another gate at the FISH Preserve parking lot east of 119th Street West.
Shuttles are available from G. T. Bray Park (5502 33rd Ave. Drive W., Bradenton) and the Coquina Beach parking lot in Bradenton Beach ($1.50 one way, $3 round trip), and paid parking for various prices is available on private property in the fishing village.
The cost is $4, with kids under 12 free, with proceeds going to enlarge and restore the 95-acre FISH (Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage) Preserve east of the fishing village.
See the sights at the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival
Saturday, Feb. 16
Sunday, Feb. 17