Karen Bell

Location of Interview
Collection Name

In Their Own Words


Series of interviews conducted for the documentary In Their Own Words: Perseverance and Resilience in Two Florida Fishing Communities. 

Date of Interview

National Capital Contracting 

Principal Investigator
Biographical Sketch

Karen Bell is a dedicated member of the Cortez fishing community in Florida. Born and raised in Bradenton, she has always had a deep connection to Cortez, spending Sundays at her grandmother's house, where large family gatherings and delicious meals were a regular occurrence. Karen's father and uncles were fishermen, and she grew up surrounded by the sights and sounds of the fishing docks. Karen's father eventually transitioned from fishing to working at the AP Bell fish house in the early 1960s. In 1986, after completing college, Karen moved to Cortez and began working at the fish house. Initially, it was challenging for her to establish herself in a male-dominated industry, but she gradually learned the ropes and became an integral part of the business. For the past 19 years, she has been actively involved in managing the fish house operations, ensuring bills were paid, and supporting the local fishermen. Karen has been actively engaged in various organizations advocating for the interests of Cortez fishermen. She was involved with Organized Fishermen of Florida, particularly during the fight against the net ban, and later became part of a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the fishing heritage of Cortez.

Scope and Content Note
The interview with Karen reveals her resilient and determined outlook on the challenges faced by the fishing community in Cortez. She emphasizes the importance of maintaining a balance between recreational and commercial fishing, as well as protecting the livelihoods of hardworking fishermen. Karen recalls her fond memories of the original small fish house in Cortez and the growth of the fishing industry over the years. She witnessed the expansion of the AP Bell fish house and the positive impact it had on the local fishermen, enabling better prices and sustained income through improved freezing and storage capabilities. The discussion also touches on the fight against the net ban in Florida, highlighting the misinformation and political influence behind the amendment. Karen laments the passing of the ban, which had significant impacts on smaller fishing operations. Many fishermen found alternative means of supporting their families, showcasing the resourcefulness and skills of the fishing families in Cortez. She further discusses the decline of the fishing industry in Cortez, leading to the closure of prominent fish houses like Full Foods. The increasing property values forced older families to sell their houses, resulting in demographic changes in the area. Karen also mentions the formation of a nonprofit group focused on preserving Cortez and educating people about the fishing community. Their efforts led to the acquisition of a 95-acre tract of land to protect the bay and enhance the fishery. However, concerns about the future of fishing remain, as fish houses struggle due to rising property values and regulations. Karen’s involvement in fisheries management, particularly their appointment to the Gulf Council, is mentioned. She expresses frustration with the political nature of the position and uncertainty about the future of fishing in Florida. Looking ahead, the fate of the fishing industry and the preservation of fish houses will determine the future of the Cortez community. Balancing tradition and economic challenges faced by fish house owners is crucial, with support needed to protect commercial fishing and the community's way of life.

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