The starfish parables

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

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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.

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