From hurricanes to red tide, Florida's fishing industry struggles to stay afloat.
Story and photo by JASON LEVITT
Thomas “Blue” Fulford sits in a lawn chair stringing up a net with a piece of a credit card and a spool of green nylon thread.
His skin has the look of tanned leather, like many of the “salty dogs” — old fishermen — in the area. I ask him how long he’s been a fisherman, and he tells me to come closer and speak up a bit — his hearing’s bad. I ask again, right into his hearing aid, and he just raises his old, brown hand up around his waist. Since I’ve been that tall, he means.
It is about noon on the first day of the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, held every February, and people have crowded the wooden docks that jut out from the coast of Cortez into Sarasota Bay.
A group of festival-goers eat their lunch — fresh grouper sandwiches, plates of bright red crawfish and clams, raw oysters by the dozen — while watching Blue quietly work.
Blue, 74, is “one of the originals,” as he likes to say.
He has never left Cortez. “I never had the money,” he says with his bright blue eyes smiling.
He remembers Sarasota Bay filled with Cortezian fishing boats. He remembers pulling out mullet by the thousands.
His family helped settle Cortez more than a century ago. One of the last fishing villages in Florida, it clings to the coast between Sarasota and St. Petersburg like an old barnacle, refusing to be washed away with the tide.
“The fishing’s lousy,” Blue says. “The red tide about killed all the fish around here, and it was bad before that because of the net ban.”
The “net ban” is Section 16, Article X of the Florida Constitution, and it hurt the commercial fishermen in Florida more than any red tide. The ban made it illegal to use huge gill nets, sometimes as long as 900 yards, to snag mullet during spawning season.
So now, instead of fishing, Blue strings up small fishing nets to sell to tourists.
“I wanted to do something to get some cash flow,” he says.
Gill nets have a mesh size about 3 to 4 inches apart so as to catch mullet by the gills as they try to escape. But the “net ban” amendment, passed in 1994 with 71 percent of the vote, changed all of that. The law ordered fishermen to use nets that have a smaller mesh size — too small to catch mullet by the gills.
The effect was drastic. According to a University of Florida study, “What Happened After the Net Ban,” the average mullet harvest was about 19 million pounds a year before the net ban. After the net ban, the yearly catch reduced to about 8 million pounds. It also reduced the amount of full-time fishermen in the state by 20 percent.
“What this amendment really did was to put the older fishermen out of work,” says anthropologist Michael Jepson. “Throwing cast nets is too tough for them to do over and over again.”
Jepson is from Gainesville but is in Cortez doing a documentary film about the local fishing industry and how it was affected by the net ban.
“The people of Cortez really see the net ban as an injustice,” he says. “The SOS (Save Our Sealife) campaign put out a lot of misinformation and graphic pictures of dolphins and sea turtles dying in the gill nets. But dolphins and sea turtles rarely died in those nets.”
We’re talking inside of the small center belonging to the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage. Poster boards and maps fill the center, detailing the history of Cortez and the organization’s future goals. One of FISH’s main goals is to purchase 95 acres of wetlands and uplands in the east side of Cortez. The land would buffer what FISH sees as encroaching development in the area.
Central to their fundraising efforts is the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. FISH hopes to raise $65,000 in this two-day event.
“Just a Bird Bite”
It’s about 9 a.m., an hour before the second day of the festival begins. Some people are there early, milling around and popping open their first beer of the day. Cooks from local restaurants set up pool-table-sized grills under white tents. There are almost two dozen different food stands, each with a particular specialty. Under one tent, men are busy grilling grouper and frying crab cakes. Under another tent, a Greek couple sautés a huge pile of chicken, onions, and peppers for gyros. The smell is thick and sweet, and it mixes with the salty sea breeze wonderfully.
As Jepson walks to the docks, he points out the A. P. Bell fish company.
“Without this fishery, there would be no real fishing industry left in Cortez,” he says.
The company is one of the largest of its kind in the Tampa Bay region and has been owned by the Bell family for more than 30 years.
On the dock of the fishery, Calvin Bell tosses small silver fish to a crowd of pelicans and gulls. The birds squawk and circle eagerly around him.
Calvin is one of the four Cortezian brothers who own A. P. Bell. He has cotton-white hair, bushy eyebrows, and a good-natured smile. He lobs a few of the fish right into the gaping mouths of the pelicans but makes sure to throw some high — straining with the effort — to reach the gulls that are sitting on top of the fishery.
I see that the top of his right hand is bloody. What happened?
“Oh, a pelican got me,” he says, smiling as before. “Just a bird bite.”
The birds have come to expect this treat. If they see Calvin’s boat come into Sarasota Bay, they follow him for miles — right up into the docks of the Bell fishery.
“I like to take care of my birds,” he says.
However, it remains in doubt how long these birds will get a free snack.
“We keep coming back with less and less fish,” Justin Liddy says.
Liddy, a fisherman in his 20s, is busy working on one of the A. P. Bell grouper boats to the pulsing beat of rock band Audioslave coming over the radio.
Liddy just got back from a two-week fishing expedition, right before the grouper season officially ended. The latest trip was cut a little short when another crew member lost part of his finger after it got caught in some fishing line. They had to come back to drop him off to get medical help before he and the captain could go back to work seven miles out at sea.
Liddy loves being a fisherman but thinks commercial fishing in Cortez could be over within the next five years. Grouper fishing, the kind the Bell fishery devoted to after the “net ban,” may be the next target for tough regulation.
But Liddy doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the politics of it all. “There will always be fishing somewhere,” he says. “Wherever that is, I’ll be there.”