The starfish parables

Meet the hardy denizens of Florida's last working fishing village — survivors of net bans, hurricanes and the Red Tide

click to enlarge NEW LIFE: The story of Cortez's survival radiates from the docks of the Star Fish Company Seafood Market and Dockside Restaurant. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
NEW LIFE: The story of Cortez's survival radiates from the docks of the Star Fish Company Seafood Market and Dockside Restaurant.

Seabillies, water gypsies, saltwater cowboys, disciples of the net, artists, storytellers, musicians, fathers, daughters, all bonded to the ocean as deeply as the tides themselves — this is Cortez, Florida's last working fishing village.

But I don't want to tell you the same old Cortez story. I don't want to sound like Majorie Kinnan Rawlings writing her editor in the '30s that Old Florida was disappearing fast, and suggesting her pen was the last thing to keep the memory of it alive.

Because there are things mightier than the pen.

Because Cortez is a story of endings that never quite end.

Located at the north end of Sarasota Bay, a bridge away from Bradenton Beach, Cortez was settled in the 1880s by North Carolina fishermen. In 1921 a hurricane demolished the fish houses, homes and hard work.

But the people came back.

In the 1930s the mullet disappeared for ten years; no one knows why.

But the mullet came back.

There were crushing losses from the Red Tide in 1947 and 1953.

Yes, the Red Tide is back. Again.

A little more than a decade ago Cortez suffered a blow from which it seemed impossible to recover: Seventy-one percent of Floridians voted for a constitutional ban on fishing with gill nets (also known as entangling nets) to harvest mullet. Family businesses based on this method of fishing were destroyed.

But Cortez, once again, came back.

This is the story I want to tell you about — and it radiates from the docks of the Star Fish Company Seafood Market and Dockside Restaurant.

A Parable

There's a parable about an old man throwing beached starfishes back into the sea. A young boy asks him why he is persisting in such a thankless, endless enterprise. "What does it matter?" he asks. The old man says, "It mattered to that starfish."

A starfish is not a helpless creature. As tenacious as generations of Cortezians, this echinoderm is powerful enough to cling to rocks in rough weather and changing tides. A ravenous shellfish eater, it is the mortal enemy of shell fishermen. Before the biology of starfish was understood, fishermen would hack them to pieces and throw them back into the sea, inadvertently multiplying the problem. A starfish can regenerate from fragments of itself. A wound can reform into a new arm, a new body and a new life.

Paul Brugger and his wife, Karen Bell, saved the Star Fish Company from foreclosure following the net ban. This move kept the property firmly in the hands of native Cortezians. The building to the north of the Star Fish is the A. P. Bell fish company. It has been in the Bell family's hands for over 30 years. The building to the south of the Star Fish belongs to Alcee Taylor, who is now in his early 80s. He lives in the former N. E. Taylor Boat Works, which now serves as a seafaring museum. A sign outside says, "Cast your nets and feed the multitudes."

The Star Fish began in 1923 as a wholesale market, with a retail section added in the '60s. It's a Frankensteined building with add-ons, breezeways, screened porches, a dock, eight picnic tables, a kitchen, seafood retail store and second-floor office. The restaurant serves Florida seafood fresh off the boat. Hushpuppies and cheese grits have a familiar sincerity to them, like the home sweet home you never quite found.

Brugger, 41, is an ex-Marine, a private pilot and a jack-of-all-trades. One minute he's on a forklift, the next on the phone driving off in his big truck to fix something or someone. He's an action figure of a man who has a distinct fear of working in his office.

His wife is optimistic about the future of Cortez's commercial fishing industry, but he's not quite so sure.

"It's going to trickle out," he says. "It isn't an on and off switch where it is gone in one click. One day it will simply be gone." He'll say this with a full, lucid diatribe against the 30-second TV-ad propaganda that surrounds the Florida constitutional amendment process — the kind of propaganda that helped convince Floridians to vote for the gill net ban.

Brugger is concerned that a process that was supposed to empower voters instead empowered cash-rich special interest groups. "They want the commercial fisherman gone. They want Florida for tourism and recreation, not working people." The constitution, he explains, shouldn't be a micromanagement tool.

Seventy-One Percent

Signatures for the net ban constitutional amendment were gathered by three primary groups: the Florida Conservation Association, Florida League of Anglers and Florida Wildlife Federation. At the time Save Our Sealife, Inc (SOS) aired its commercials, fishing industry spokesman Blue Fulford told the Tampa Tribune that the ads for the amendment suggested that commercial fishermen were killing Flipper.

If you sit around the Star Fish dock early in the morning, commercial fishermen will tell you straight up that 71 percent of the public was duped by big-money boaters, boating/fishing retailers, sports fishermen in the guise of conservationists, greedy developers eyeing coastal real estate and a State of Florida move to promote tourism over the life-ways of its own inhabitants. But maybe not in those words.

The fishermen have to believe the electorate was duped. They don't want to think that voters would have intentionally destroyed family businesses in Cedar Key, Steinhatchee and other Florida fishing towns.

Cedar Key's fish houses have been turned into condominiums. Residents laughingly call the area "Clam-A-Lot," reflecting a shift to shellfishery. Steinhatchee has latched onto scallops.

But Cortez has kept on fishing — with longlines instead of nets, going out into the Gulf for 10 to 14 days at a time, focusing on crabs, shrimp, grouper, snapper and other things allowed seasonally by both God and man. And Cortez used its formidable history to build the beginnings of a statewide Maritime Museum and a Community Center. Cortez, in other words, went with the tide of change, opening docks to charters, eco-tours, marine detailing, seafood retail, restaurants.

click to enlarge ACTION FIGURE: Paul Brugger, who with his wife Karen Bell saved the Star Fish from foreclosure following the net ban. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
ACTION FIGURE: Paul Brugger, who with his wife Karen Bell saved the Star Fish from foreclosure following the net ban.

And residents held the line at their shores: They raised money to save 95 acres of critical wetlands and mangrove-rich acres that surround the shallows of the bay. Our bay.

The wetlands protect valuable fish hatcheries that feed into the bay. Cortezians call the hatchery "The Kitchen" because it has fed so many while helping the village stay self-reliant. (Locals are proud that the town didn't take money from the government during the Depression.)

Money for these precious shores was raised through a grassroots effort of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH), from individual donations, the annual February Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival and grants. The land has been named the Fish Preserve. On the side of Cortez Road, a gigantic, carved-wood sign marks the spot. A sign carved by Chainsaw Charlie.

The Artist

Chainsaw, aka Charlie Keller, 61, works part-time at the Star Fish on its market floor, where you'll know him by his wide smile, open arms and his skills with a filet knife. But his precision carving instrument of choice is the Stihl chainsaw.

A cross between Sean Connery and Hemingway, Keller projects a sense of great stature, even though he says he's not even six feet tall. Like Hemingway, he has survived two plane crashes, though he refers to one of them as a hard emergency landing. In the Marines, his youthful cocky "know-it-allness" earned him the nickname of Salty. That might have remained his moniker if he had not bought the Mulalani in Key West.

The Mulalani is a 46-foot Polynesian catamaran built solely to be an exotic floating centerpiece. Constructed in St. Petersburg, the boat was used in a 1960s Jones Beach Marine Amphitheater production of the musical Paradise Island featuring Guy Lombardo. The craft ended up serving in Key West as a charter boat. By the time Chainsaw got a chance to own it, it had been dismantled.

In his 17 years of living aboard the Mulalani, he has had to rebuild her three times. The second time, she broke anchor and beached herself next to Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Madeira Beach. It took seven months of reconstructing the Mulalani by hand on that very beach for it to be seaworthy. Hurricane Charlie? He's still doing repairs from that storm, replacing all the wood that developed mold and rotted.

The chainsaw-carving began when he was on the Mulalani anchored near Fort Myers. A man paddled up in a kayak.

"If that was my boat, I'd have tikis all over it."

"What's a tiki?" Chainsaw asked.

The man's name was Tiki Tom. He was a chainsaw carver who had lived aboard his own boat for years, even raising three children on a mullet boat that had a storage shed set on it.

Within months, Chainsaw, inspired by Tiki Tom, was an attraction at a Fort Myers Polynesian resort, carving as entertainment and selling his art. His subject matter went beyond the wooden images of Polynesian gods to dolphins, pelicans, turtles, suns, stars, fishermen and even totem poles.

These days Chainsaw prefers to carve on a raised deck he designed and built on the Mulalani. The next generation of Kellers anchor their boats near his and join him to carve. The sea is in his blood. The 10 years he's "lived on the hook" — anchored — at Cortez have softened him so much that the former biker has even taken to naming his roaches. (He calls most of them Fred, as in, "Oh look, Fred's cleaning the spoon.")

There's a calm spirit on the Mulalani. A sweet breeze usually crosses the deck where a Buddha, an Indian chief and totem poles stare calmly across the water.

The Captain

"Poor Charlie," she laughs. "I violate his privacy so much. You can see him laying there in his bed on the Mulalani sleeping." This violation of privacy happens as she curls her charter boat away from the Star Fish, around the Mulalani and across the bay.

Kathe Fannon works for Captain Kim's Boat Rides and Charters. The service docks two of its 23-foot boats at the Star Fish. She's been a captain for three years.

"I am a commercial fisherman by heart. I'm a charter captain under duress," she says, smiling, but with an edge in her voice.

She's old-school Cortez: a fourth-generation Cortezian. Her father and her husband are commercial fishermen. "You know I married for love because as a commercial fisherman married to a commercial fisherman, I took a vow of poverty."

If she loves where she works, it seems the feelings are mutual. Nearly every time she walks to the boat past locals on the dock, at least one person will say, "That Captain Kathe is a sweetie. And she can handle a boat better than a man." (You hear those lines, or versions thereof, so often she ought to put them on a T-shirt.)

Her passion for the sea was passed down from her dad, whom she worked with on their boat. Her favorite saying is still "Let her go," her father's signal to drop the gill nets into the sea.

They had to sell the boat after the net ban.

click to enlarge CARVING OUT A LIVING: Charlie "Chainsaw" Keller aboard the Mulalani, where he carves sea creatures and totem poles. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
CARVING OUT A LIVING: Charlie "Chainsaw" Keller aboard the Mulalani, where he carves sea creatures and totem poles.

"I would put my childhood up against anyone else's," she says about growing up in Cortez, adding that people will leave but they almost always come back.

You'll see her out on the sea, her daughter behind her and her cocker spaniel at her feet. She works in a bikini top, shorts and mirrored shades. With one hand she gestures at the keys, the mangroves and the bay, sharing the stories she learned and lived with her family.

As she talks about how she misses commercial fishing, the sound in her voice will break your heart. You see, a lot of the community considered the work God's work, feeding the multitudes, taking care of the resources, monitoring the catch like it was going home to their own family. The catch was more than money; it wasn't much money, but it was calling. It was faith.

And faith is a somewhat necessary ingredient when dealing with the sea. Take, for instance, the story of Rabbit's missing boat.

The Fisherman

The Star Fish dock had been buzzing with it all weekend: the longline fishing boat Miss Sadie had recently left for a two-week day trip in the Gulf in the path of Hurricane Katrina. Communications had been spotty and unpredictable. The Coast Guard had been alerted but there were no signs of the boat.

In front of the Star Fish is a monument to lost fishermen. Billy Tyne is there, the ill-fated captain in the highly fictionalized movie The Perfect Storm; Tyne roomed near the Star Fish part of the year. Here too are names of other persons connected to Cortez — husbands, brothers and friends. A boat lost at sea touches people even if they don't know the captain and crew. Even the sinners pray.

Miss Sadie made it to shore with all of her crew.

Rabbit, aka Glen Brooks, 42, is the boat's owner. He has been in Cortez for 30 years. As a pre-teen he hustled jobs on the docks, sweeping the parking lot at the Star Fish or packing bait fish for some spending money.

A diesel mechanic as well as a boat owner, Rabbit is able to do most of his own repairs, giving him an advantage in keeping his fleet in the water. He doesn't go out on boats anymore, but does the paperwork. He owns two commercial boats outright and four with partner Calvin Bell.

Often he can be found at the Star Fish having a beer, talking about business and avoiding it with equal measure.

A redheaded, full-bearded man, he's a working paradox. When the diesel engine business got slow, he began work in a fishing industry that also slowed down, and he has made a success of it. He's also an active board member of the Gulf Fishermen's Association (GFA).

Right now the GFA is trying to broker a voluntary buy-out program for grouper fishermen. Working with the Southern Offshore Fishermen's Association to garner government loans, they are trying to reduce the fishing capacity of the grouper fleet voluntarily so that grouper fishing can continue annually without getting shut down.

Cortez's death by development and fishing industry failure has been forecast for decades by reporters, anthropologists, historians and even native Cortezians. But a younger generation, like the ones previous, finds it hard to leave.

The Mermaid

For days on the docks, I waited and looked for Jasmine Brewer. In her 20s, she has worked for Star Fish in the market, cleaning and selling fish, for almost five years. Like her favorite legendary creature, the mermaid, she was elusive.

I made at least three or four appointments with the mermaid, but for some reason she was never at the appointed place — and I never got a call explaining why.

A week before she was to leave her job at the Star Fish, I cornered her at the register. She wouldn't meet my eyes. I thought it was shame for standing me up.

click to enlarge THE MERMAID'S TALE: Jasmine Brewer is leaving the Starfish, but she suspects she'll be back. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
THE MERMAID'S TALE: Jasmine Brewer is leaving the Starfish, but she suspects she'll be back.

"That's a really great shirt," she says, looking at my ripped wife-beater. "I can't keep my eyes off if it."

Whatever rancor I felt melted under the heat of her white-hot mischievous smile.

She's the Angelina Jolie of this story, a fish-house hottie.

Across her back, she has a colorful mermaid tattoo. As a young girl, she spent a lot of her time swimming under the water thinking she was a mermaid. The beautiful carefree creatures are her familiars. Her house is full of their images.

Although she's leaving the Star Fish, she isn't leaving Cortez. There's a house she's interested in buying with her Cortezian fiancé Garrett Steger, charter boat captain with Git-R-Done Extreme Fishing. There's stone crab season, when she'll work off the docks for extra money.

She's left the Star Fish before, working as a draftsperson for an airline parts company. The cubicles got to her. And she came back. She suspects even now, she'll be back.

Another Parable

The residents of a village are gathered at their shore, picking up starfish and throwing them one by one back into the sea. A tourist says, "Now this is clearly impossible and a waste of effort. Shouldn't you move on to something else?" The villagers look up and answer in unison, "No."

All the starfish are saved but one — the one the tourist takes back home as a souvenir of "real" Florida.

This is the thing that is mightier than the pen. The sea. It reduced Charles Darwin to dribbling seasickness. It shipwrecked Stephen Crane. John Steinbeck was forever changed by the tidal pools at the edge of the Sea of Cortez near Mexico. And with all the scientists, conservationists, fishermen, grants and think tanks aimed at studying its depths, its checks and balances remain its own.

Note the Red Tide. Again.

RhondaK, a freelance writer, lives on a boat in Sarasota Bay.

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