¡Bienvenido a Clear Waters: Historias de la industria pesquera comercial de la Costa del Golfo en Cortez! Este es un archivo digital que contiene las historias orales de los trabajadores de la industria pesquera comercial en el pequeño e histórico pueblo pesquero de Cortez en la costa oeste de Florida. Aquí, escuchará sus historias, y aprenderá por qué la industria pesquera comercial de Florida es una de las más incomprendidas del estado.
Welcome to Clear Waters: Stories from the Gulf Coast Commercial Fishing Industry in Cortez! This is a digital archive that contains the oral histories of commercial fishing industry workers in the small historic fishing village of Cortez on the West Coast of Florida. Here, you'll listen to their stories and learn why Florida's commercial fishing industry is one of the most misunderstood in the state.
"Approximately 3 billion people in the world eat seafood. Yet, the commercial fishing industry is one of the most misunderstood. The public often has the misconception that commercial fishers in the United States abuse the environment and fish stocks. This, however, is untrue.
Commercial fishermen rely on a healthy ecosystem to ensure their ability to harvest. The U.S. government is also proactive in managing public resources. Both have the same goals - to make sure the resources are healthy and available for all. That includes the recreational fishermen and consumers who rely on the commercial sector to harvest seafood for them. The more we educate the public about this symbiotic relationship, the more we strengthen our industry at home, ensuring the vitality of Cortez and other fishing areas."
- Karen Bell, Co-owner of A.P. Bell Fish Co., Inc. and
President of Friends of the Florida Maritime Museum
John Banyas is a third-generation Cortez fisherman. From the Carolinas, his maternal grandfather chased mullet down Florida’s east coast then up the Gulf Coast in the early 1900s, until he decided to make Cortez his home. Banyas’ grandmother met him when he was fishing with her father. His mother was born in Cortez in 1932. Born in 1910, Banyas’ other grandfather fished his whole life. He started building boats in the late 1920s, and founded NE Taylor Boatworks. Located on the shoreline, the boatworks is equipped with a rail system to haul boats in and out of the water. Cortez had a good fleet of skipjack sailboats at first, to which they gradually added small motors and made other changes. Banyas fished on one of them until about 15 years ago, and it is now in the Maritime Museum. Banyas’ father, who worked in concrete and masonry construction, met his wife on nearby Anna Maria Island in the 1950s. Banyas grew up surfing and fishing. His grandfather taught him how to fish and work on boats, and he regularly fished with his grandfather throughout his school days. Banyas continued fishing after high school, working for various companies in Manatee County and Ruskin. He also gradually started acquiring boats. When he was 30 in 1995, he had the opportunity to buy Cortez Bait & Seafood. He added a small retail market, more freezers, and slowly built it into a major operation. Today the business processes thread herring, sardines, mullet, mackerel, and more brought in by 20 to 30 self-employed fishermen. There is a full-service boatyard, since Banyas brought the NE Taylor boatyard back to life in 2000. In addition, they have a 300-seat, water-front restaurant and another retail market on Cortez Road. One of only two remaining fish houses in Cortez, they have become a well-known brand throughout Florida and in California. Banyas still enjoys the fishing business because he likes being outside on the water. He also appreciates the connection with his family heritage. Currently, his son does stone crabbing and has a bait fishing boat. Unfortunately, Banyas perceives increasing problems with Gulf water quality. With increasing population and diminishing water quality, the fish are losing habitat. But he notes that it’s not the fault of the commercial fishermen: “We’re just here to survive.“
The A.P. Bell Fish Co. Inc. has been buying and selling seafood for generations. Even before they arrived in Cortez around 1900, the Bell family fished and farmed in Beaufort, NC. Aaron Bell started the fish house in 1923, and later his sons ran it. Karen Bell’s father started building grouper boats in 1970s to create an offshore fleet, completing one every few years. That was the main reason the family managed to stay in business after the 1995 net ban when most fish houses closed and much of the culture was displaced. In recent years, the company opened the popular Star Fish Company Market and Restaurant next to their warehouse to provide residents and visitors with fresh seafood. Bell began working at her family’s wholesale seafood business after finishing college in 1998. Her father did not want her to work there because he thought it was a man’s industry and hoped for an easier life for her. But she’s glad she did. Bell is not only an extremely competent and well-respected businesswoman, but she considers it an advantage to be a woman because she can interact with the male employees better through non-confrontational means. All the AP Bell fishermen are subcontractors or operate their own business. In some cases Bell hires the captain and they hire the crew, but they also buy from small independent boats. Normally they work with about 75 fishermen every year, though the number increases to about 125 during mullet season. Cortez is known for mullet and mullet roe worldwide, and the mullet population is growing annually. Other seasonal harvests include shrimp, stone crabs, pompano, mackerel, and bait. Grouper and shrimp are year-round.
Tim Caniff’s family originally moved from New Jersey to Ft. Lauderdale, then relocated to Bradenton a few years later. Caniff was introduced to commercial fishing and Cortez by friends with whom he fished both recreationally and commercially. After he returned from college, he started as a crew member on boats fishing for mullet or bait. Among his mentors in bait fishing was Blue Fulford, who brought purse seining for bait to Cortez. Caniff has worked in several sectors of the local fishery. The first shrimp boat he worked on was with Gilbert Mora and his sons, who were friends. He also spent time fishing for stone crabs with John Banyas, Junior Taylor, Michael Leary, and others. Caniff sells primarily to Banyas at Cortez Bait and Seafood, but also sells to Karen Bell at AP Bell Fish Co. Inc. In addition to fishing with Banyas for some years, he helped him with building and maintaining boats. Although he hasn’t seen any real change in water levels in Cortez, Caniff has observed changes in the underwater environment that he attributes to red tide, increasing population, construction, and run-off. He believes that red tides have become more frequent. Other industry problems include pressures from regulations, recreational fishing, and public misconceptions about commercial fishing. Away from fishing, Caniff pursues some interesting hobbies. He used to raise bees and now cultivates award-winning giant pumpkins
The Ibasfalean family were originally farmers in Michigan. Ibasfalean’s grandfather and his brother moved to Cortez and entered the fishing industry, where his father and uncle worked stone crabbing and purse seining for bait fish. One of Ibasfalean’s earliest memories was watching the catch being unloaded. When he was around 8 or 9 years old, he started accompanying his father on boats. Ibasfalean studied astronomy in college and still harbors a deep interest in the subject—but he has always returned to fishing. When he first started his career with AP Bell Fish Co. Inc, he did purse seining with his father. Now he oversees the essential freezing operation, which encompasses packing, blast-freezing, storing, and then shipping fish. This can be challenging because of the volume of fish they process, including large, impressive catches of swordfish and tuna. Ibasfalean sees Cortez as one of the last full-time commercial fishing villages in Florida. Although it has had an enormous influence on the area, he believes that as tourism is moving in, it is destroying the Cortez fishing industry. He would like to see the easing of some government restrictions in order to encourage the fishing industry. Ibasfalean also hopes that the public will realize that 90% of the fish they eat at restaurants are caught by commercial fishermen. Because of the problems, he hopes that his children will not enter the fishing industry.
Mark Ibasfalean was born in Cortez and spent 40 years working as commercial fisherman. He is now partially retired but still provides some maintenance at the Seafood Shack, a local restaurant/marina. He also does part-time fishing and crabbing, and has people who crab for him. He wants to keep the business going in case he decides to return. In addition, Ibasfalean mantains the boats for his wife’s charter business. The Ibasfalean family were Michigan farmers who moved to Ft. Lauderdale in the 1950s. They did not care for the area, so they came to Cortez, built a marina, and started taking care of local boats. After growing up around the marina, Mark, along with about 7 siblings and cousins, decided to become fishermen. At first, they made a lot of mistakes, but the other fishermen and distributors helped them. They began gill netting mullet, trout, and other fish when they were teenagers. Later they started crabbing, then got into purse seining for bait fish. Ibasfalean and his cousins also built several small boats, including a purse seiner that is still working today. Ibasfalean notes that the fishermen don’t catch fish unless a fish house wants them. The fish house managers always understand the dynamics of both available fish and the market—and they insist on high quality. They are calling the shots. Although Ibasfalean loves fishing, he believes that as the years go by, their aging their bodies can’t handle as much work. This occupation is for 20-year-olds—it is a back-breaking brutal business. At the same time, it’s exciting: he feels on top of the world when he catches a load of fish. And he’s seen amazing sights in the Gulf, such as whale sharks or thousands of octopus at once. Ibasfalean loves the life on the water, so he plans to stay as long as he can survive. But he believes that he’s already succeeded.
Jay Lucas is originally from Clearwater and his family was not in the fishing business. Nevertheless, he started fishing when he was young—his first job was scrubbing party boats docked in Clearwater Beach. By the time he was 16, he was making rod and reel trips during the summer. After high school, he engaged in more serious fishing. In 1970 he started longline fishing for a man in Dunedin, and was able to buy a boat in 1971. He then worked for the Dunedin Fish Company. Next, Lucas worked out of Biloxi for a couple years, but became homesick. He then started running his own 51-foot commercial boat, longlining for grouper, snapper, and other bottom fish with two other crew. Lucas pursues different types of fish depending on the season. Red grouper is available for 9 months, then June through August they move to deeper water for snowy grouper, tile fish, yellow edge, and other fish. The offshore fishermen can only harvest 5000 pounds per trip. In addition, Lucas stresses that the fishermen must abide by government regulations. Monitored by computer, they are quickly contacted and fined if they are not fishing 30-40 miles from shore. Lucas recognizes that fishing is still a dangerous occupation in many ways, despite new and helpful technology. When his son was 8 years old, Lucas left fishing so that he could spend more time with him. He became an aquatic technician with various environmental companies that tried to keep inland ponds and waterways balanced and well-filtered. During that time, he and his family became seriously attached to baseball and he coached a very successful young team. Lucas decided to return to offshore fishing in 2011 due to his personal attachment to the water and fishing. Lucas believes that some government restrictions have had a long-term beneficial effect of fish stocks. However, he recognizes the negative effects of run-off on fish and water quality. Overall, he is hopeful for the future of commercial fishing since the stocks are strong. But he would like the public to recognize that commercial fishermen are working hard, and that fish prices rise in large part due to the increasing cost of gas and other necessary supplies.
Angel Martinez belongs to a family of Mexican background. From Michoacan, Mexico, his mother belongs to the Purépecha indigenous group, for whom fishing is a major part of life. Martinez first started fishing with his father at his grandmother’s house on the banks of a river. He and his father gradually acquired knowledge about fishing, and finally started commercial fishing part-time 6 or 7 years ago. Martinez has many pleasant memories of fishing with his father, and sometimes finding surprisingly large schools of snook, redfish, snapper, grouper, and other fish. But he takes seriously the dangers involved with fishing, like the time that the bow of his boat was almost swallowed by a wave or another time when they were overtaken by a sudden storm. Martinez and his father crew a boat together and pursue mostly mullet, ladyfish, and mackerel. In addition, they sometimes fish for grouper and kingfish offshore. He actually owns two boats: a Parker for recreational fishing or charter fishing, and a skiff for commercial fishing. Martinez is in the process of starting a charter business so that he can step away from his other job, welding, and be on the water full-time. Martinez has often observed problems in the Gulf caused by red tide. He attributes the greater frequency of red tide to issues such as overdevelopment and destruction of the mangroves. He also believes that there is some correlation between the flooding and rising water caused by climate change and the many seabeds or grass flats that have turned into sand flats. It is his sincere hope that we will be able to address the causes of climate change and lessen its effects.
A native of Bradenton, Paul Moore’s paternal grandmother was a Fulford—one of the founding families of Cortez. She lived here from the 1950s to 1980s. His maternal grandfather was one of the first commercial stone crabbers on the Gulf Coast. He and his father started stone crabbing and fishing in 1950s. At that time, they only pulled 30 or 40 traps per day. His paternal grandfather was a builder, one of first to start building houses on Anna Maria island. When Moore was 5, the family opened Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant, an old Florida-style restaurant that became a Longboat Key landmark for 48 years. They also purchased a fish house in Everglades City. Moore learned stone crabbing from his family. After graduating from high school in 1980, he started stone crabbing and lobstering on father’s boat. They built all the wooden traps by hand—a constant process since wooden traps only lasted 2 or 3 seasons. Eventually, Moore moved to Everglades City and managed the family fish house for 6 years. He learned a lot since the business processed about 5000 pounds of crab per day, which were wholesaled or used by the restaurant. After his family sold the restaurant in 2015, John Banyas invited Moore to work at Cortez Bait & Seafood. He now runs dock—and enjoys being in the seafood business. Stone crabbing on Florida’s central west coast has remained very good. Cortez Bait & Seafood runs about 3000 stone crab traps (state tag limit) per year, which they pull every 5-7 days or so. Moore believes that the future of the fishing industry should be fine if the fishermen make sure that their voices and knowledge are heard by those making the rules and regulations.
Chris Pringle is the fourth generation in a family of Cortez fishermen. His great-grandparents, Nash and Leona Pringle, came to Cortez from the Carolinas in 1918. In the 1980s he first got into fishing with his grandfather, Raymond Pringle, who worked on a gill net boat. Today Pringle fishes with his son for the AP Bell Fish Co. His motivation is a deep attachment to water and to fishing. When he was 7 or 8 years old, Pringle first went mullet fishing with his father. Before the 1995 net ban, he used gillnets inshore. Today he uses mostly cast nets inshore to catch a variety of fish, depending on the season. Among the fish he catches are mullet, ladyfish, sheepshead, and some bait fish. But his personal preference is to catch mullet. Pringle sells his catch primarily to AP Bell, with whom he has a strong relationship. Occasionally he will sell to other dealers when he is outside the Cortez area. Pringle lives part-time in Jacksonville, where his father is the pastor of a church. He is still fond of life in Cortez, but believes that tourism has changed it. He would like the public to realize that commercial fishermen are necessary as food source providers. Over the years, Pringle has seen changes in the fish stocks. The increasing outbreaks of red tide have caused large fish kills. He also believes that population increase, habitat destruction, and pollution have had a negative effect, and that infrastructure changes are needed to prevent future spills. The fishing industry has also changed, and young people are less likely to enter due to increased regulations, expensive equipment, and the effects of frequent spills. In the past, Pringle was involved with the Organized Fishermen of Florida, who worked successfully to clean up Florida waterways.
Art Shiver comes from a long line of fishermen. Originally from Georgia, his great-grandfather George Shiver settled near the Homosassa area, where they operated orange groves and fished. His grandfather Woodrow Shiver moved south to Palmetto around 1947. Since they were poor, they traded oranges and old nets to obtain the funds to move, and once in Palmetto they obtained more nets from local fishermen. The men, including his father Art Sr., built their own pole skiffs and originally used cotton nets to fish for mullet, trout, and redfish. They also did some crabbing. Shiver feels that he was born into fishing. One of his fondest memories is fishing with his grandfather after school when he was about 5 years old. Around that same age, he learned to hang nets from his grandfather and father. Shiver had his own mullet boat by the time he was 9 years old, and fished throughout middle and high school. Nevertheless, after graduation he went to work for Manatee County government and is nearing possible retirement in two years. When the time comes, he will probably become a full-time fisherman. Shiver is happy to see that his son shares his passion for fishing, and at 23 he just earned his captain’s license. Shiver has a kicker boat, on which he used hard and soft sein nets and castnets. When using his skiff, he only employs a castnet to fish for mullet, jack, and baitfish. Shiver usually starts at daybreak. He fishes mostly inshore in water that is five feet or less. After catching the fish, he puts them in a mixture of ice and saltwater—this brining keeps them fresh until he can sell them to the fish house. His family has long sold fish to AP Bell, and Shiver primarily sells to them. Shiver identified several problems in the fishing industry. He believes that the primary problem with fishing today is that overdevelopment is precipitating a decline in the fish population. Moreover, frequent waste spills have increased red tide outbreaks and other problems. Fewer young people are entering the profession because of the hard work involved and the necessity of giving up their electronics for periods of time. Shiver would also like the public to receive more education about fishing processes and regulations in order to dispel negative misconceptions.
The videos below are excerpts from oral history interviews. They share the perspective of commercial fishing workers on the topics of the environment, regulations, misconceptions, net mending and/or making, and their personal memories.
The Environment and Fishing
“People who make their living off the sea are invested in protecting the resource; not just from an economic perspective but also from an emotional one. Fishing families are often multi-generational, and the balance of harvest to future is critical for them to continue their way of life. These families are among the most vested with an interest in maintaining sustainable fisheries.”
-Angela Collins, multicounty Florida Sea Grant
based at UF/ IFAS Extension Manatee County
Commercial fishing refers to the harvesting of fish, either in whole or in part, for sale, barter or trade. Commercial fishermen are farmers on the water. Just like farming, the industry is vast. A small organic community farm cannot be compared to an industrial farm nor should they be viewed in the same way.
When the average person thinks of commercial fishing, they think of industrial factory fishing operations. Small community fish houses like the ones in Cortez are compared with the actions of these larger giants. This way of thinking hurts local, small-scale, family-run operations where fishermen are supporting their families, contributing to their communities, and just working hard to survive.
These men and women, often risk their lives, to distribute responsibly-caught seafood. They know that in order for our communities to survive, harvest techniques must be responsible. The actions of these larger industrial operations are not beneficial to the environment, for our communities, and for the continuation of small-scale fishing operations.
How are federal fisheries regulations created?
In most cases, the first step of developing federal fishing regulations happens at the Council, and the final steps are implemented by NOAA Fisheries. Every regulation is developed under slightly different circumstances, but the general process for developing federal fishing regulations is as follows:
The Council gathers suggestions and ideas regarding the fishery problem, need, or identified issue. This information comes from stakeholders and the public. Issues, potential impacts of actions, and options for addressing the issue (called reasonable alternatives) are identified through this process.
An oversight committee develops actions and alternatives based on the information gathered. Technical analysis of the actions and alternatives are done and the Council drafts supporting documents.
After alternatives are developed for plans and amendments, public hearings are held to gather feedback on potential impacts of proposed options or suggestions for alternatives.
A committee makes a recommendation on the final action to the Council. Before the Council votes, the public is invited to speak on the action. The Council votes on adopting or amending the action. Once the Council votes to adopt a management action, it goes to NOAA Fisheries for review, approval, and implementation.
NOAA Fisheries reviews the Council action for compliance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act and other federal laws, and then proposes a regulation by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The proposal is listed in the Federal Register (FR) so that members of the public can consider it and submit their comments. The Federal Register is a daily U.S. government publication that publishes proposed and final regulations for federal agencies. This publication can be found online.
Once we consider the public comments, we revise the regulation as needed and issue a final rule. This final rule is also published in the Federal Register.
The regulation is then codified in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which is the official record of all federal regulations.
Information courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.
Nets and Net Making
In the early days, nets were made from organic materials, like linen or cotton. Subjected to harsh salty breezes and intense Florida sunshine in addition to the strain put on them by the actual fish, these nets would often rip and need mending. As technology progressed, synthetic fibers began to be used in net making. Each advance in technology required less maintenance; instead of mending daily like Cortez pioneers, today's fishermen mend nets every few weeks.
While there are federal fishing regulations, the state of Florida has been regulating the commercial fishing industry since the 19th century, especially nets. The most infamous regulation being the Gillnet Ban in 1995 which over time disallowed all use of Gillnets in Florida waters. This significantly impacted small fishing villages up and down the Florida coastline and caused many fishermen and fish houses to no longer be able to provide for their families after generations in the industry.
"Those of us that fish for a living, love what we do. Therefore, we never work a day in our lives."
- Captain of the Fishing Vessel Linnea C., Rich Bontrager
Thank you for participating in the Clear Waters Digital Exhibit. If you were impacted by the exhibit please fill out the survey below. These answers help us share with our funders the significance of this project and can also help secure future funding.
Funding for this digital exhibit was provided through a grant from Florida Humanities to the Friends of the Florida Maritime Museum (FFMM), with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was provided by FFMM, Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau, and Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this sign do not necessarily represent those of the Florida Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.