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.