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Date of Issue: January 07, 2009

FISH: 2008 Islander of the year

The FISH Preserve encompasses about 100 acres at the eastern edge of Cortez. Islander Photo: Jack Elka

It is with pride that The Islander newspaper names an organization across the waters as 2008 Islander of the year: the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage in Cortez.

This “seagrass-roots” group has accomplished tremendous progress since its formation in 1991 on behalf of the laid-back fishing village through its work to halt prospects that challenged its roots and to protect and preserve the historic community from outside threats.

As FISH describes itself: “The unique folkways of traditional Gulf Coast communities are under a great deal of pressure from such diverse forces as foreign markets, environmental legislation and changes in land use that follow a disturbing pattern. Residential developers, the recreational fishing industry and promoters of tourism all seek the waterfront for purposes that are often hostile to the life-ways of Florida's traditional working waterfronts.

“Few of Florida's traditional fishing villages have been able to retain their cultural integrity. Often succumbing to developers, high fuel bills and high property taxes, undisturbed natural habitat, fish houses, boatyards, marinas and other forms of public access that have coexisted for 100 years and more are disappearing. The practice of re-evaluating waterfront land for the ‘highest and best use’ higher tax base have left most waterborne businesses with little choice but to sell the property for new high-dollar condos or other forms of intense development, regardless of lost jobs and a negatively impacted quality of life.

“Cortez has endured and survives as an historical record of Florida's frontier history and an important link to the past with its unique quality of life. Cortez has remained a fishing community in that fourth and fifth generations of fisher-folk still work and live in the historic village. Many homes, fish houses, docks and the waterfront are still occupied by those pioneering families who settled Cortez and stand as a meaningful record of that early history.”

FISH’s hardworking board of directors, augmented by hundreds of volunteers, literally has fought in the mud for the century-old village way of life.

The list of FISH accomplishments is long. It seems only fitting that one of the first achievements was to secure about 100 acres of scrub and mangroves east of the village as a preserve. The FISH Preserve serves to maintain marine life in Sarasota Bay that provided for the village inhabitants for more than 100 years. It buffers the village from encroaching development that threatened its existence.

The preserve was purchased and is owned solely by FISH. Cleanup efforts have been ongoing to remove the debris that accumulated on the property for decades. Work also is ongoing to restore tidal streams to enhance habitat for fish, crabs, birds and other critters.

To accompany the preservation task, FISH is credited with spearheading and securing the next step for the village: The gateway to and from the FISH Preserve and the village, the 1912 schoolhouse on 119th Street. The building was purchased through state and county grants as well as private donations, rehabilitated and restored to its current use as the home of the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez. It opened in 2006.

Adjacent to the museum is the Burton Store, the first commercial building erected by pioneer settlers in the village. In 1890, the building served as a store, post office, community gathering place and dock connecting the isolated fishing families with the outside world at its previous location on the bayfront.

With much insight to its future, it was moved and salvaged on blocks until, through grants, it was relocated, and is slated to be used for classrooms and other events.

Special consideration of the unique nature of Cortez was addressed through help from FISH as well. Manatee County approved land-development code changes to allow Cortez to remain Cortez, with net and boat storage permitted on property in the historic fishing village.

It has been a long trip, but that phase of keeping Cortez as the original village for fishers should remain, thanks to the hard work of FISH and its friends.

We say, thank you to FISH and its diligent, hard-working village task force. Thank you for being part of our community and our honored Islanders of the year.