Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival

The Party with a Purpose Turns 40 – Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival

The Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival returns this month to celebrate 40 years of supporting the village it loves, which is also the last working fishing village left on the west coast of Florida. In addition to the fun of great food, music and art, the festival hosts educational “Dock Talks” hosted by Florida Sea Grant, teaching folks about the local catches, fishing methods and the fishing industry’s importance to our local economy. Cortez provides seafood for not only local and state consumption, but worldwide. The Festival is a “Party with a Purpose”, as the singular fund raiser for the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, which purchased and maintains the FISH Preserve, a 93-acre buffer of upland, wetlands and mangrove shoreline adjoining the village to the east. FISH is also instrumental in challenging encroaching development that threatens the ecology in which the fishing industry depends upon.

Humble Beginnings

In 1982, this tough little fishing village was already 100 years old. This was also the year it held its first Commercial Fishing Festival, a one-day event comprised mostly of residents, friends and locals. It was organized by the Cortez chapter of OFF, Organized Fisherman of Florida, to bring attention to the commercial fishing industry and the community that depends on it. In the mid 90’s the festival had grown and expanded steadily and became a two-day event to accommodate more guests as the festival grew in popularity. The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage became the main player in Cortez preservation after it was organized in May 1991 as it consolidated the Cortez Aux. Fire Co., Cortez Village Historical Society and OFF. FISH’s Mission is “Dedicated to the promotion, education and preservation of Cortez and Florida’s commercial fishing and other traditional maritime cultures including the environment upon which these communities depend.” And this mission is supported primarily from funds raised during the now 40-years of festivals.

The Tiny Village that Could

Cortez survived the hurricane of 1921 that decimated the village, leaving only one building standing along its waterfront. It survived the Great Depression without taking any outside assistance. Cortez is synonymous with hard-working, tough survivors. Of the many challenges Cortez has faced throughout its history,  the gill net ban in 1995 dealt perhaps one of the biggest blows to Cortez, losing half its business within just 2 short years. Cortez has adapted to these and other regulatory challenges, but following the net ban, the younger generation of commercial fisherman by and large sought other types of work. Some became charter captains, moonlighting commercially rather than as a primary source of income. Another source of income became the norm because it had become economically impossible for most to survive by commercial fishing alone. Some left the industry completely. From the late 90’s right up to the present day, the challenge Cortez faces come mainly from encroaching development. Just across the bay from Cortez, Anna Maria Island’s growth from a sleepy island community to an international vacation destination has accelerated that process. When I was a kid in the 70’s growing up in Cortez, both the village and the island were insulated from “town” by a few miles of farms, sparse homes and woods, connected by a two-lane road that ran east and west. That same stretch of Cortez road is now 4 lanes and almost entirely developed or slated to be developed within the next decade. With development comes traffic, a growing problem in this growing list of challenges for the festival and the lives of those who call the village home. Since its inception, FISH has provided support to the village to stand up against the modern challenges and maintain its unique culture and heritage. In 2021 the festival was canceled for the first time in its history due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, stripping FISH of its major source of income for an entire year.

In 2022, Cortez and the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival need our support more than ever.

“Over its 135+ years of history Cortez has always proved its ability to persevere and it’s resilience in overcoming trials, the Festival is no different!  COVID stole a lot from us all in 2021 including the 39th Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival! So, we are excited to be coming back! Our theme this year “Gearing Up” is the perfect descriptor of what we are doing to bring back the best party with a purpose in Manatee County.  A celebration of one of the last vestiges of old Florida, the Historic Village of Cortez, Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH ) and the FISH Preserve!  In the Village it’s TIME TO PARTY!!” Said Jane VonHahman in our conversation this week about this year’s upcoming festival. The Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival is back and better than ever, come join in the fun! Plan on joining the Party with a Purpose on February 19th & 20th 2022, from 10am to 6 pm both days.

Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival

The festival is located at the east end of the Village adjacent to the Florida Maritime Museum at 119th Street West.

For more information visit the FISH website.

Hope to see you all there!

Photos from Commercial Fishing Festival

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