FISH flounders, cancels festival

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A crowd fills the food court at a past Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival on the waterfront in Cortez. Islander File Photo
A server hands over an order of stone crab claws to a customer at the two-day outdoor Cortez Stone Crab Festival held in November on the waterfront shared by Swordfish, Cortez Kitchen and a fish house and boatworks, all owned by John Banyas. The potential impact of coronavirus has prompted the event’s cancellation. Islander File Photo

Just like a flounder caught in the muck, the organizers of the annual commercial fishing festival in Cortez struggled with whether to host the event in 2021.

But in the end, faced with deadlines to organize the February event and financial consequences, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage board members agreed to cancel, leaving people to look past the Cortez waterfront in 2021 for their fix of seafood, music and art.

The FISH board unanimously voted Oct. 5 to cancel the 39th annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival in February 2021 due to concerns with the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual festival attracts thousands of people to Cortez over two days to celebrate the heritage of the fishing village and its locally produced seafood.

The event features an array of local food and craft vendors, a lineup of musicians performing onstage, as well as family-friendly activities like a marine life touch-tank, educational “dock talks” and rock climbing.

Such outdoor attractions traditionally draw sizable crowds, but FISH never had to enforce social distancing guidelines — a challenge when dealing with revelers, long lines and crowded picnic tables.

Due to the spread of the coronavirus via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or sings, the event would put people at risk.

The festival has served as the primary fundraiser for FISH — a nonprofit dedicated to preserving commercial fishing and maritime cultures, as well as the coastal environment.

The proceeds drove the purchase of the 95-acre preserve and contribute to its improvements.

In February, the two-day event attracted 12,000-13,000 people and raised $244,718 in gross revenue, netting FISH $60,000 after accounting for expenses.

This year, members found themselves in a Catch-22: If the festival draws crowds, people’s lives could be put at risk. If the festival fails to draw crowds and generate enough business to turn a profit, FISH takes the risk of losing money.

“I mean, it is a festival. We depend on crowds and people being together, so to try and socially distance with 5,000-10,000 is very difficult,” said John Stevely, FISH member and a founder of the festival. “Just to be responsible and safe and not risk a financial disaster, the decision was unanimous, but it did come with a great deal of pain and agony.”

“There were too many unknowns and, fiscally, we just didn’t think it was appropriate to spend money if we didn’t have more certainty it would come back,” said Karen Bell, a FISH member and owner of the A.P. Bell Fish Co.

“People do genuinely still come out during rain, but this is a bit more precarious than that,” she added.

The FISH board decided in October to cancel the February festival because, in order to proceed with the event, the organizers couldn’t wait any longer.

“We had to make (the decision) now because of all the permitting and organizational work that needs to be done,” Stevely said Oct. 7. “And if we held the festival and people weren’t able to come, it’d end up being a tremendous financial hardship for us.”

The nonprofit has enough money in its contingency fund to sustain a year without a festival but, they wouldn’t last if they moved forward and held an unsuccessful event, according to Stevely.

Board members vowed to explore other fundraising ideas.

“Hopefully, we can plan some other types of activities,” Stevely said. “We’re in a little bit of shock right now, but we’d like to try to do something.”

Bell said the nonprofit would consider hosting small events if the coronavirus situation improves.

“Something simpler. Scaled down. Where people can social distance a little bit more,” Bell said.

The ninth annual Cortez Stone Crab & Music Festival, held traditionally in November in the parking lot of Swordfish Grill, also was canceled due to concerns with the coronavirus, according to Stevely.

“It’s a difficult call, but some people think we’re being responsible and respect that,” Stevely said. “I suspect other people wish that we would soldier on, but we didn’t feel as responsible board members that we could hold the festival.”

“These events are very special, so it’s a big blow to Cortez and a lot of the community,” he added. “But we’ll just have to do it bigger and better and hopefully a lot of people will come out in 2022.”

The FISH board members will meet next at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2, at Fishermen’s Hall, 4515 124th St. W., Cortez.


Also canceled

The ninth annual Cortez Stone Crab & Music Festival, traditionally held in November following the Oct. 15 startup of stone crab season will not take place. The event, hosted in the shared waterfront parking lot for the Cortez Bait and Seafood fish house, Taylor Boatworks, Swordfish Grill and Cortez Kitchen by the businesses — all owned by John Banyas — also has been canceled due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.