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Sarasota, The Fishing Village

"The fish darted to and fro in the sea green water; they bumped against the boat and they leaped over the rudder." J. W. Walden - 1890

WILLIAM H. WHITAKER, the first white settler to arrive in Sarasota made his ‘first money’ by selling sundried salted mullet and roe to Cuban traders who sailed up and down the coast.

It was 1842 and he had no difficulty catching the fish. Here’s one description of the situation in the 1890’s written by J. W. Walden:
“I went to Bradenton in Capt. Frank Blackburn’s Sea Turtle: As we approached Sarasota Pass we met a school of mullet. The fish darted to and fro in the sea green water; they bumped against the boat and they leaped over the rudder. I captured two six-pounders with my dip net while they were in the air. The school literally filled the pass – it was more than a mile long. If there was one fish in that school, there were at least a million. It was sight I shall never forget.”

When the mullet would leap high in the air they made a weird, uncanny noise which old-timers say sounded like the roar of heavy surge breaking on the beach. At times this roar could be heard more than four miles inland.

Whitaker could take a cast net and fill his boat in a few minutes. He cleaned the fish, salting them thoroughly, and then placed them on racks to dry. After a few days they become as “hard as boards”. They were stored in hand-made crates until the Cubans came to buy them.

The traders paid one cent a fish! Pennies were not to be scorned in those pioneering days. A thousand dried mullet brought $10, and with $10 many things could be purchased. Whitaker managed to get along very nicely.

Beginning in 1884, however, the demand for salted fish declined while the demand for fresh fish increased tremendously. In 1895, the U. S. Dredge Suwanee cut a channel in Sarasota Bay. With the channels completed, steamers of shallow draft could take the inland waterway from Tampa Bay directly to the wharf at Sarasota and make profitable stops at fishermen’s wharves along the way.

The first steamer that went on the Sarasota run was the Mistletoe, owned by John Savarese, of Tampa, one of the state’s leading fish dealers and merchants. The Mistletoe made its maiden trip to Sarasota on Monday, October 7, 1895. In the eyes of the Sarasotans, it was something grand. And the shrill sound of its whistle, blown as it came down the bay, was music to their ears. The steamer docked, and nearly the whole town turned out to see the strangers who were aboard.

During the Spanish-American war, 1898, when nearly 40,000 troops were stationed at Tampa for months awaiting transport to take them to Cuba, the demand for fish soared to unheard of peaks – and prices rose accordingly.

Today: On a 200 acre ranch in Sarasota, Mote Marine Laboratory is growing crops of caviar from farm bred sturgeon. Males are harvested in two to three years at a weight of 12 to 20 pounds. Females mature in five to eight years, weigh between 50 and 100 pounds and are harvested for both caviar and meat.

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