Many residents and fishing interests are trying to save a fishing camp structure in Sarasota Bay.
October 11, 2020
Office of Governor Ron DeSantis
State of Florida
400 S. Monroe St.
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001
Dear Governor DeSantis,
I am writing because I do not know where else to turn. I live in Cortez which is a small fishing village located on Sarasota’s northern perimeter. Cortez is unique in that it is still a working waterfront. Fish houses dot the shoreline where fishermen sell their catches. These fish are shipped all over the U.S. and throughout the world.
The history of this community goes back for multiple generations. In the late 1800s, families moved here from the North Carolina coast and began fishing local waters. They brought with them their knowledge of net fishing. Part of that knowledge was the use and care of cotton nets. Cotton nets were the primary gear used to ply inshore waters for different species. And since fish differ in size these nets would have different size meshes (holes) designed to gill targeted fish. A fisherman might have five or six nets in his collection: mullet, pompano, Spanish mackerel, etc. As different seasons would come and go, different nets would be needed. Before cotton nets could be stowed they needed to be dried and limed to protect against rot. Once prepared they would be stored somewhere. And that place was net camps.
Net camps were built just offshore of the village in Sarasota Bay. Fishermen would build these with whatever spare material was laying around and basically have a shed over the water. They were out of the way and made pulling a net on and off a boat much easier. At one time Cortez had over 20 of these structures. With the invent of monofilament, the need for such structures was reduced. Monofilament nets did not require the care or protection like cotton nets. Over time most of the camps fell apart and were never rebuilt.
Today Cortez is down to two net camps. One is due south of Star Fish Company, the other south of A.P. Bell Fish Company. Both have been rebuilt multiple times over the years. The more easterly one was rebuilt by a local non-profit in the late 1990s. The other was rebuilt by local fishermen after storms destroyed it.
In 2018 the west camp, known locally as the Guthrie Camp, was rebuilt by Raymond Guthrie Jr. It had been his grandfather’s camp and as mentioned before it had been rebuilt at least three times that I personally recall. When Mr. Guthrie rebuilt the camp this time it was in the same spot as the one before it. In fact, the salvageable pilings were reused. For most of the village this was nothing unusual. Just like the east one having been rebuilt, it was just another camp being repaired.
But unfortunately, there are now people residing in the village who do not know or appreciate our history. One of these residents (who moved here from Canada) called an island newspaper to complain about the camp rebuild. A reporter from that paper then called DEP to inquire about it. DEP recorded that call as a complaint and it has been a fight ever since.
For some reason, rather than DEP recognize the historic significance of these last two structures (Cortez is on the National Register of Historic Places which mentions net camps in its content), they have been hellbent on having it torn down. Even after showing them aerials from the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s and 1970s that prove the structure was there, DEP has not relented. I personally spent over $30,000 hiring an attorney to intervene as I own the upland property. I finally had to withdraw my suit as I could not afford to continue fighting.
I am asking for your help. These camps are iconic to this community. Artists come from all over the world and have memorialized these structures in their work. I do not understand how my state is not supportive of our history. Cortez today is not only a working fishing village, it is a tourist destination. We have managed to blend both industries by developing a symbiotic relationship between the two.
Finally, a group of us decided as a last resort to reach out to you. We understand that you and everyone are dealing with a lot considering the pandemic and its effects on our lives and economy, but we do not want to lose this part of our heritage. Please, please help us protect these last two remaining net camps in Cortez. Time is of the essence. Mr Guthrie appeared in court last week and was given 90 days to remove the camp. This is wrong and we need your help.
Karen Bell (Owner A.P. Bell Fish Co.)