The Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival returns Saturday and Sunday February 16 & 17 from 10:00 to 18:00.
Spend a day amongst fishing boats, gear, fish houses and commercial fishermen to appreciate a different perspective on life.
Originally known as Hunter’s Point, Cortez is located on the northern edge of Sarasota Bay adjacent to Anna Maria Island and its three cities, Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach. Cortez has one of the few remaining active commercial fishing waterfronts in Florida.
Historic Cortez has long been an important fishing village and the fish so plentiful the adjacent Anna Maria Sound was referred to as ‘The Kitchen’. In the 1850’s, before refrigeration, most of the mullet caught was salted and shipped to Cuba.
By the 1890’s fishermen came from the Carolinas by train to Tampa and by boat to Cortez, exchanging passengers for iced fish, which went back to Tampa and by train to northern markets.
By 1910 the population had reached 110 people, and in June 1912 the village was incorporated. The Fishing Gazette, February 5, 1913, stated “From Cortez, the name of a little fishing village where about 150 fishermen make homes, came a report of a record- breaking catch of mullet, 200,000 pounds, which would have netted the men $4,000 if it had been possible to ship them all. Unfortunately this could not be done as it was impossible to obtain enough ice for the purpose”.
In 1921, a 100-mph hurricane destroyed everything except Burton’s Store and the Albion Inn.
In 1947, a red tide algae bloom hit area waters on the Gulf of Mexico, and millions of fish died. The 1950s were development boom years in Manatee County as northerners moved into the area. Thousands of acres of sea-bottom were dredged for canals to create waterfront homes, and mangroves were removed to create open vistas. Many of the shallow mangrove habitats used by mullet were destroyed. In 1953 the Florida Legislature outlawed “stop-netting,” a method of fishing where a crew of five or six would trap, herd, and then seine net the fish. This, coupled with another outbreak of red tide, crippled the local fishing industry.
In the late 1960s, Cortez Bait and Seafood, opened on the Cortez waterfront, closed in the late 1980s but reopened in 1994 by a local fisherman and is operating today as a commercial fish house and fresh fish market. In the 1970s, innovations in packaging, such as large freezers, helped the industry by allowing shipment of fish, including mullet roe, from Cortez to new markets in Japan, Taiwan, and Hawaii. In 1974 the old Albion Inn was taken over as a U.S. Coast Guard station. Cortez had grown to 500 people by the 1980s, and fishing for bait for recreational anglers began to rival seafood as a source of income.
Cortez is currently facing a number of pressures as a result of increasing regulation of the commercial fishing industry, and encroaching residential development. The total seafood landings in 1986 were more than 15 million pounds and that dropped to less than 4 million pounds in 1999. Due to the declining fishing industry, some waterfront fish houses are vacant and for sale. A coalition of Cortez community groups saved the historic Burton’s Store from demolition and the building will soon be restored at a new location.
Cortez residents have demonstrated their dedication to the preservation of the village’s maritime and cultural heritage through many recent community initiatives, such as the FISH Preserve, 1912 Schoolhouse restoration, Florida Maritime Museum, traditional boat building at the Community Center, and by collating written and oral histories.
The Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival has grown from 500 visitors in 1981 to over 20,000 in 2007 and is organized entirely by a volunteer committee of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH), a Florida not-for-profit corporation. All proceeds benefit F.I.S.H. Preserve, which is endorsed by Jean-Michel Cousteau.
Cortez Village is only about 10 blocks in size and parking is limited. Expanded parking to the east is about 15 minutes walk away. Remote parking will be available at the Sugg Middle School on 59th Street and at Coquina Beach Park on Anna Maria Island, with round-trip shuttle provided for $2. Anticipate congestion on Cortez Road and be patient and courteous.
There will be nautical art and displays from over 50 artists, Florida seafood, and live music. Work boats, pleasure craft, and historic vessels will line the waterfront. A mock ‘attack’ by members of the Traditional Small Craft Association is staged from Coquina Beach to Cortez shore, using traditionally designed sailboats, rowboats, canoes and kayaks from their boatbuilding program.
John Stevely, from the University of Florida, will provide hourly tours describing the 30 -40 boat types on the waterfront, the gear used, fish and shellfish types, biology and the ecology of the area.
Admission is $2, kids under 12 free.