Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
Cortez, on Sarasota Bay in Manatee County, is the last remaining fishing village on Florida's Suncoast. Cortez, originally known as Hunter's Point, probably wouldn't exist today if not for fishing and for mullet especially. Native Americans fished the area long before the U.S. Fish Commission in 1879 declared the "Hunter's Point Fishery" to be one of the most important suppliers of seafood on the west coast of Florida. Before 1857, due to lack of refrigeration, most of the mullet caught from the area was salted and shipped to Cuba.
Cortez was permanently settled in the late 1880s by fisherman from Carteret County, North Carolina. These fishermen, with names like William "Capt. Billy" Fulford, Nathan Fulford, James Guthrie and Charles Jones came to the area seeking one thing, mullet. At this time the mullet were still being salted, but markets had been established in nearby Tampa and the fish were transported there by boat.
By the 1890s more fishermen were recruited from North Carolina. They came by train to Tampa and then by boat to Cortez. The boats, called "run boats", operated between Tampa and Cedar Key supplying ice for the fish. After the boats unloaded the passengers, they would leave with the iced fish and return to Tampa where the fish were loaded onto trains destined for northern markets. That same year, the first store, called "Burton's Store", was erected on the waterfront along with the ice house. Later, when the store was sold, the Albion Inn was added. It wrapped around the store. However, all supplies and ice were still transported by water.
In 1895 the U.S. Post Office came to Hunter's Point, and the name of the point was changed to Cortez. Right after the turn of the century, Nate Fulford installed a four horsepower, water-cooled Barker engine on one of his fishing boats, called a "skipjack". Soon other fishermen were pulling the engines out of their cars and doing the same. This led to the end of sailboat fishing in Cortez.
By 1910 the population had reached 110 people, and in June of 1912 the village voted for incorporation. An item in the February 5, 1913, issue of The Fishing Gazette stated, "From Cortez, the name of a little fishing village where about 150 fishermen make homes, came a report of a record- breaking catch of mullet, 200,000 pounds, which would have netted the men $4,000 if it had been possible to ship them all. Unfortunately this could not be done as it was impossible to obtain enough ice for the purpose".
1880 -- Cortez is permanently settled, as Hunters Point, by fishermen from North Carolina.
1890 -- More are recruited from North Carolina.
1895 -- U.S. Post office comes to Hunter's Point, and the name is changed to Cortez.
1912 -- Cortez incorporates with a population of 110.
1913 -- Cortez has a record breaking catch of 200,00 pounds of mullet.
1921 -- Hurricane destroys everything except Burton's Store and the Albion Inn.
1940s -- Wholesale fish houses began to appear, some that are still standing today.
1945 -- Women are working the seafood business due to the men going to war.
1947 -- The first red tide hits the Gulf and millions of fish are killed.
1950s -- Developmental years for the area due to many people from the North moving in, sea bottom is dredged for canals and marine habitat is destroyed for housing developments.
1953 -- Florida legislature bans "stop netting."
1960s -- Monofilament line and "kicker " boats are introduced as industry improvements.
1970 -- Packaging improvements and large freezer operations allowed Cortez fishermen to begin exporting.
1980s -- Bait fishing begins to take hold.
1995 -- A gear restriction amendment was passed adversely affecting the seafood industry.
The year 1921 brought a hurricane with 100-mph winds. The storm surge hit Cortez and destroyed everything on the waterfront except Burton's Store and the Albion Inn. Homes and docks were completely destroyed and the fishermen spent their time rebuilding that year. The depression in the 1930s had little effect on Cortez, as it was self-sufficient from its fishing industry.
During the 1940s several fish houses were constructed and all are still in use. For example, A.P. Bell, Star Fish, and Fulton's began construction in the 1940s. A.P. Bell is still a working commercial fish house today. Star Fish was struggling and was finally sold in the early 1990s. It became a small fresh fish market and sandwich shop. Fulford's fish house was constructed in 1940. It was recently purchased from the Fulford family by Calvin Bell and is used by A.P. Bell to land fish on busy days.
Just after the construction boom in fish houses, Pearl Harbor was bombed. About 65 men and women from Cortez enlisted. Some fishermen were deferred from the draft because they were considered essential food producers. Young women in the village worked in the fish houses and other "masculine" jobs to make up for the loss of the young men. Between 1940 and 1945, the fishing industry revived with the 45 servicemen who returned home to fish.
In 1945, the Seafarers International Union called a strike, claiming that the price for seafood had been set too low. The strike went on for several weeks. Then, in 1947, the first red tide hit area waters on the Gulf of Mexico, and millions of fish were killed. The 1950s were development boom years in Manatee County as northerners moved into the area. Thousands of acres of sea bottom were dredged for canals to create waterfront homes and mangroves were removed to create open vistas. Many of the shallow mangrove habitats frequented by mullet were destroyed. In 1953 the Florida Legislature outlawed "stop-netting," a method of fishing where a crew of five or six would trap, herd, and then seine net the fish. This, coupled with a new outbreak of red tide, crippled the local fishing industry.
In the mid 1960s two improvements to the industry were introduced, monofilament nets and kicker boats. These were boats with outboard motors replacing inboard motor craft. The outboard motors allowed the fishermen to follow fish into shallower waters.
In the late 1960s, Cortez Bait and Seafood, another commercial fish house, was opened on the Cortez waterfront. This fish house closed in the late 1980s but was reopened in 1994 by a local fisherman and is operating again today as a commercial fish house and fresh fish market. In the 1970s, innovations in packaging, such as large freezers, helped the industry by allowing shipment of fish, including mullet roe, from Cortez to new markets as far away as Japan, Taiwan, and Hawaii. Unfortunately, in 1973 drug running lured some local fishermen with large, fast profits. Eight fishermen were convicted on charges and sent to jail. Also, in 1974 the old Albion Inn was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard, establishing a station in Cortez. Cortez had grown to 500 people by the 1980s, and bait fishing began to rival seafood as a source of income.
In the 1880s fishermen came from North Carolina to settle what was then called Hunters Point. The men that came looking for mullet were, William "Captain Billy" Fulford, Nathan Fulford, James Guthrie and Charles Jones.
During the 1940s several fish houses were constructed and all are still in use. For example, A.P. Bell, Star Fish, and Fulford's began construction in the 1940s. A.P. Bell is still a working commercial fish house today.
Although still active commercially, Cortez is currently facing a number of pressures as a result of increasing regulation of the commercial fishing industry, and encroaching residential development. The total seafood landings in 1986 were more than 15 million pounds and that figure dropped to less than 4 million pounds in 1999. Due to the declining fishing industry, some waterfront fish houses are vacant and for sale. A coalition of Cortez community groups saved the historic Burton's Store from demolition and the building will soon be restored at a new location.
Cortez residents have demonstrated their dedication to the preservation of the village's maritime and cultural heritage through many recent community initiatives, and by written and oral histories.
Janet Hoffman, AICP
Waterfronts Florida Manager
Comprehensive Planning Division
4523 123rd Street Court, West
Cortez, Florida 34215
- Museum of Florida History