CORTEZ, Fla. — If you've ever visited the Cortez Historic Fishing Village, you feel as though you walked back in time. This weekend the Commercial Fishing Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary. The money you spend on boat-to-table food directly protects this unique Florida treasure.
Locals and tourists can see where their money goes by visiting the nearly hundred-acre F.I.S.H. Preserve, an acronym for The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage. The preserve is in an ecosystem affectionately referred to as "the kitchen."
"The kitchen is an area out here that's very much fished," Board Member of Treasurer of F.I.S.H. Jane von Hahmann said. "They feed their families right out of the bay. It is a time capsule. That's exactly what it is when you have six generations of people who still live here, 135 plus-year-old village that has done battle to keep what it is. That's their whole reason for existence is to be a commercial fishing village."
The preserve's land was sold decades ago as a prime piece of real estate to develop. Directly east of the preserve is a concrete jungle surrounded by several R.V. parks. Locals recognized the importance of the undeveloped land and fought to save it. Money from the festival goes directly towards that mission.
"$250,000 later with like $40,000 upfront, and we paid it over four or five festivals," von Hahmann said. "Paid the whole property off. And, the more this growth happens around here, the more important it becomes because there's just no place going to be left on North Sarasota Bay."
ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska got a tour of the preserve with Dr. Angela Collins. Collins is a Florida Sea Grant Agent at the University of Florida and an expert on how population growth impacts marine environments.
"This is a true working waterfront and really one of the last remaining working waterfronts. True to its name in the State of Florida. It's very authentic. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, which means it's definitely vested in history, but it's also continuing to fish. They are still fishing for the same species that they fished for hundreds of years ago," Collins said. "We have a lot of development, and who can blame them? Right? You want it. This is paradise. So, a lot of the land that borders the waterfront is being developed continues to be developed."
While we were with Collins, we watched Ospreys soar, fish jump, fiddler crabs, and mullet enjoying the high tide.
"Little baby mullet grow up in here, and little baby snappers, little baby stone crabs," Collins said. "You know, a lot of those little baby fishes start their life in shallow, protected habitats just like this."
Collins said she wants to build bridges through the thick mangroves and create a loop trail for birdwatchers, nature lovers, and tourists to enjoy.
"We've just implemented this trail over the past year. And that is still in, obviously, in stages of development," Collins said. "Our dream is to be able to have funding to pay for some bridges to connect the entire preserve so that people can come and walk from Cortez road through the trail down to the water, you know, be able to experience some of the back parts of the preserve that they can't get to anymore because of the water."
If you would like to help turn their dream into reality, you can attend the festival this weekend, become a member of F.I.S.H. or make a donation.
Collins said the land is far more valuable undeveloped than with hotels, condos, or R.V. parks on it.
"What happens to a place an ecosystem when we lose the natural environment to development?" Paluska asked.
"I mean you lose your foundation for the reason people want to be there in the first place. So if you destroy all of the natural lands around, there's not going to be anything to support the things that brought us here, to begin with," Collins said. "These spaces provide so much more than just habitat for animals. They also provide habitat for these fish species and bird species; they're supporting our local economy. Because the fish species that live here are what support our recreational fisheries and support our commercial fisheries."
For historic photos of Cortez, click here.