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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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.

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