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Fishing Village of Cortez fights to preserve the past to protect its future

Historic net camp ordered to be removed by DEP
Guthrie net camp in Sarasota Bay.
Posted at 10:01 AM, Jan 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-18 18:20:16-05

CORTEZ, Fla.  — If you've ever visited Cortez, Florida, you may have noticed two floating net camps just offshore. The Guthrie net camp's future is now in jeopardy after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection deemed it an unauthorized structure, violating state law.

Part owner of AP Bell Fish Company, Karen Bell, says her family first moved to Cortez in the late 1890s. She says the net camps are part of the deep history and charm of old Florida.

Bell said the net camps have been built in Sarasota Bay along the Cortez shoreline since the 1920s and 1930s.

"They are very unique to our history. They tell our story. They tell how the fisherman used to do things, and we try to educate the public about how we do things now, so it makes no sense to let them go," Bell said.

Storms and natural wear and tear took their toll on the camps.

Bell said the Guthrie net camp's been built and rebuilt at least three times that she can remember.

"When Mr. Guthrie rebuilt the camp this time, it was in the same spot as the one before it. This was his grandfather's camp. The salvageable pilings were reused. It was just another camp being repaired," Bell said.

In 2017, the new structure drew the attention of the DEP. Officials determined the structure was built without a permit on sovereign Florida land and was ordered to be removed.

The fight to save the camp has been going on ever since.

In October, a judge sided with the DEP ordering the net camp's owner, Raymond Guthrie Jr., to remove it.

"I don't understand why they are not looking to help something that is so very unique to this village to preserve it. We've asked DEP if we could possibly lease the submerged bottom, if we could maybe buy the submerged bottom. I've actually submitted a Butler Act to find a way to keep it there, really I don't get it; I don't know why again they aren't being so supportive, this is so special to us here."

Throughout the early to mid-1900s, the net camps were used to store and dry cotton nets. But, with the invention of synthetics, that tedious and time-consuming practice went away. Now, the camps are used mostly for the storage of heavy equipment. Bell said tourists make the trip to Cortez to see them.

"People come here, I am telling you from all over the world they paint these buildings, the artists come along the shoreline, you'll see them out here often, It's just very unique for us, and we definitely want to see them stay," Bell said.

Bell said the fishing industry lost so much in 2020 because of the pandemic; she doesn't want to start 2021 losing something else.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska that the "matter is still in litigation," so they are limited in what they can say.

"What I can tell you is that on Oct. 8, 2020, the department attended a hearing on its motion requiring Mr. Guthrie to comply with the provisions of the court's final judgment after he failed to remove the unauthorized structure, despite the 30-day time extension provided by the department. While the judge declined to hold Mr. Guthrie in contempt of court, he did order Mr. Guthrie to remove the unauthorized structure within 90 days of the order on the motion. That deadline is Jan. 24, 2021," Public Information Manager for DEP, Shannon Herbon, said.

Bell is fighting to get a stay on the removal order. She is pleading to local legislators and Gov. Ron DeSantis to save the camp.

"It would just be a senseless shame. I mean, it makes no sense, they are not hurting anything," Bell said.