Lost art rediscovered in the heart of Cortez

Cortez, Fla. – If these old boats could talk, they would tell of journeys to foreign nations, through storms and calm seas, of fish, swamps and good times and bad.

The boats sitting at the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s Boatworks, 4404 116th St. W., Cortez, have been given a second life, and Rick Stewart to tell their stories.

Stewart, manager of Boatworks, specializes in wooden boats, but he, and a group of loyal volunteers that routinely joins him, renovate all types of boats donated to FISH.

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Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s Boatworks manager, Rick Stewart, places a fresh cypress plank on the historic Cuban fishing boat, the Campesina at FISH Boatworks Aug. 13.


“This is art. Wooden boat building isn’t mechanical, it’s an art,” said Stewart.

The boats coming into FISH’s Boatworks are donated, often historical, and are restored to be sold to benefit FISH.

FISH is a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Cortez Village’s maritime culture and history, as well as overseeing the FISH Preserve in Cortez.

Stewart said he has nearly 50 volunteers throughout the year and, in the off-season, he has eight steady volunteers.

“This place is a beehive in October. I need summer volunteers,” Stewart said.

The steady volunteers, Stewart said, are old-timers that have valuable skills relating to the vanishing art of wooden boat building and, they also have abundant knowledge of the area to impart to newcomers.

Stewart is actively seeking younger volunteers with any skill level to come to Boatworks 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, to learn the vanishing trade.

Stewart also is offering classes on the history and trade Saturday mornings at 9 a.m.

“I’m giving back to what I’ve learned in my younger years. I want young people to be involved in craftsmanship. They’re so involved in technology that’s coming out in rapid succession. This industry is about slowing down and handcrafting things and learning skills from elders,” Stewart said.

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A skeletal structure made of African mahogany will be a finished boat by February. It will be raffle prize at the 2015 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival in Cortez.

Inside the shop, vessels in various stages of restoration take up all but the little space left for walkways, including the skeleton for coquina-rowing skiff.

The skiff, which is only framework, will be a finished boat by February, and will be a raffle prize at the 2015 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. Stewart builds or renovates a boat for the raffle at the festival every year.

The coquina-rowing skiff is made of African mahogany, replacing pressure-treated pine, which Stewart said is know as Cortez teak. Stewart plans to finish the wooden boat with varnish.

“This will really be beautiful when it’s finished,” he said. “It’s like a Harley-Davidson Sportster. It has those lines.”

Seventy-five percent of the materials used in the Little Coquina are recycled from other vessels on the property.

Raised on blocks on the outside porch is an old Cuban fishing boat, the Campesina which, translated means “peasant girl.” Stewart said the fishing boat has sat in the Boatworks yard for years, and with an increase in the Boatworks budget from FISH, he is finally able to restore it.

The previous year’s budget allotted Boatworks $6,000, and Stewart said the amount left him and his crew scraping by, and pushed major restorations off to the future.

The current year’s budget doubled to $12,000, allowing him to purchase lumber and tools necessary for larger projects, such as the Campesina.

“I love this boat. I only have two photos to work from to restore it, so it’ll never be historically accurate,” said Stewart.

But, like a skilled surgeon, Stewart can diagnose the needs of the vessel as he dissects it, and speculate about its history.

“This boat was nailed together, which is not typical. It was crudely built, but the skills used to build it are top notch, including the design. That tells me there was probably a lack of resources,” he said.

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The Ana Mendez, a reproduction of a longboat circa 1539, owned by De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton is undergoing renovations at FISH Boatworks.

Next to the Campesina sits a celebrity, the Ana Mendez. The Ana Mendez is government-owned, belonging to De Soto National Memorial. The reproduction longboat, circa 1539, is used in De Soto Memorial’s annual reenactment of the Spanish conquistador’s arrival to Florida’s shoreline.

The longboat also is used in parades and displays. Stewart said the Ana Mendez was originally made at Boatworks, and is on deadline to be used in a fall festival event at the end October at the park.

“This project is helping us build a relationship with De Soto Memorial. I feel like I’m doing a good thing because it’s for all the people,” Stewart said. “It’s one charitable organization helping another.”

The Boatworks building, housed on the northwest corner of the FISH preserve, also houses other celebrity boats including the Esperanza and the Sally Adams. Both historic vessels will be on display at Nov. 1 at the Sarasota Bay Water Festival at Ken Thompson Park in Sarasota and the Nov. 15 at the Florida Maritime Museum’s Boatyard Bash.

This article was originally published in The Islander, August 20, 2014.

Cortez Fishing for Freedom members attend protest, appellate

Cortez, Fla. – As workers in Tallahassee prepared for a day in the appellate court, two Cortez fishers packed their bags.

President of the fledging Manatee County chapter of Fishing for Freedom, Mark Coarsey, began making plans to travel to Tallahassee when he heard the 1st District Court of Appeal would hear the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s appeal to Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling concerning on a statewide ban on gill nets issued October 2013.

The constitutional amendment restricting gill nets and mesh sizes of nets rocked the commercial fishing industry in Cortez, and other commercial fisheries across the state, when approved by Florida voters in 1994. The ban took effect in 1995.

Fulford’s ruling in Wakulla Commericial Fishermen’s Association v. Florida Fish and Wildlife over turned the net-ban, making it ineffective, which was quickly met with an appeal and stop order from the FWC.

The now 20-year legal battle over the ban is seeing an emergence of a grassroots collective representing fishers across the state of Florida and is gaining traction on the Fulford ruling.

Cortez fishers Coarsey and Nate “Toasty” Meschelle met up with the Fishing for Freedom group in Tallahassee May 15 to attend a protest and hearing.

The Fishing for Freedom group gathers May 15 around FFF president Ronald Fred Crum and vice president David Grix at a protest at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission building in Tallahassee. The group held signs in protest before the hearing on the recent net-ban ruling at the 1st District Court of Appeals. Photo courtesy Nate Michelle
The Fishing for Freedom group gathers May 15 around FFF president Ronald Fred Crum and vice president David Grix at a protest at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission building in Tallahassee. The group held signs in protest before the hearing on the recent net-ban ruling at the 1st District Court of Appeals. Photo courtesy Nate Meschelle

Coarsey said 50-60 people attended the peaceful protest in Tallahassee outside of the FWC building, most wearing their FFF T-shirts. The shirts have a prominent phrase across the back reading, “Biology vs. Politics.”

Following the protest, FFF members filled the courtroom for the hearing.

“We represented Manatee County. Is it important we went up there? Yes,” said Coarsey. “They’re taking out a species of fisherman.”

The hotly contested net-ban intended to address sustainable fishing practices, and almost exclusively affects mullet fishers. The FWC contends the rule is intended to preserve fish populations by preventing over-fishing. The Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association, the group facing the FWC at the 1st DCA, say the rules do not achieve the intentions.

Coarsey says limiting the mesh size of the nets means it is more difficult for fishers to net legal-sized fish and juvenile fish are caught instead, producing a bycatch that the net-ban intended to eliminate.

“Let us go catch our fish. You won’t have the bycatch we’ve been having and you won’t have the junk in our bays,” said Coarsey. “Commercial fishermen are out to protect our resource.”

A three judge panel listened May 15 to testimony from attorneys representing the Wakulla group and the FWC. A ruling for the case will be issued after the judges have reviewed the testimony and any new evidence offered.

If the panel of judges sides with the Wakulla group, the Fulford ruling will be upheld and the net-ban will be lifted.

Historic Cortez Village

This gallery is a collection of photos taken in Cortez Village, a fishing community in west-Bradenton. The photos were taken between October 2013 and October 2014.

Click on an image below to view it full-size and use the arrows to flip through the gallery.


Cortez fishers talk about gill net ban

Cortez, Fla. – On Oct. 22, the ban on gill net fishing, imposed in 1995, was lifted by a circuit court judge in Tallahassee. Just over two weeks later, on Nov. 6, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee granted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission an automatic stay on the injunction, allowing FWC officials to enforce the ban.

“It’s typical,” Karen Bell, of AP Bell Fish Co. 4539 124th St., Cortez said. “They lifted it and rescinded it 10 days later or something like that.”

The lifting of the ban was seen as a victory for the lawsuit on behalf of the commercial fishing industry, headed by Wakulla County mullet fishers against the FWC. Despite the victory, commercial fishers in Cortez aren’t surprised by the restrictions back in place.

“If the ban was lifted, they were right there waiting to overturn it,” said Kathe Fannon, a fourth-generation Cortez fisher.

The ban, which took effect in 1995, has been disputed as unfair and ineffective by commercial fishers across the state but defended as a necessary conservation measure by the FWC.

“No one came out here and asked us how we fish, how we maintain and how we thrive,” Fannon said. “If they ever went out with us, watched how we work, they never would have done this.”

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford, who rendered the Oct. 22 ruling lifting the ban, did just that. Fulford considered the issue for a year and went mullet fishing to see how the nets work. Her ruling was a result, in part, of her experience, and she called the net-ban law an “absolute mess.”

“After the net ban in ’95, four out of the five fish houses here went bankrupt three weeks later. We’ve been here for over 100 years thriving, through the great depression,” Fannon said. “They didn’t take the nets, they destroyed an industry that’s been here since the beginning of time.”

The ban’s intention was to eliminate by catch, the unintended capture of juvenile fish and other marine life. An agency rule aimed at this purpose defines a gill net as any net with a stretched mesh greater than 2 inches. The rule left commercial fishers to use hand-thrown cast nets, which do a poor job of catching legal-sized fish and kills juvenile fish in the process.

The lifting and replacing the gill net restriction may not be all for naught.

“At least people are thinking about it and I think some people are seeing that (the net ban) wasn’t done properly,” Bell told The Islander in an earlier interview. Florida residents are “at least more respectful of what these guys go through to bring domestic seafood to consumers.”

The ban-a constitutional amendment was passed in 1994 and was supported by 72 percent of Florida voters. Fannon cites the media coverage leading up to the ban for the skewed perspective on the effects of gill nets.

“Florida Sportsman magazine, the Bradenton Herald all ran photos of dead, bloody dolphins, the same beautiful dolphins I take people on charters to see, as a result of gill nets. It’s just not accurate,” Fannon said.

The fishers of Cortez pride themselves on their long lines of family operations and hand-manufacturing of boats and nets. Fannon said, the nets she made with her father were designed to catch larger fish, and allow juveniles to break free, returning to the water to spawn to maintain a sustainable supply. She also said the Cortez boats, known as kickers, were designed to protect the seagrass beds.

“It’s a finely tuned process we’ve perfected over generations and we ran it like professionals,” Fannon said. “We’ve been here for over 100 years making a living from these waters, and we treat it with respect.”

The stay on Fulford’s injunction will remain in place until the appeal’s court has considered the claims. For now, no gill net fishing.

This article was originally published in The Islander Dec. 18, 2013.