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jarrod mckenzie star fish co anna maria island

On Anna Maria Island, Sustainable Fishing Is a Sensation

Captain Jarrod McKenzie braces against the wind as he holds up a frozen mullet to explain the life and economy in the oldest fishing village in Florida. It’s not hyperbole to say the mullet, a silver-scaled fish that leaps out of the warm waters it calls home, is the reason for prosperity in the southwest coast of the Sunshine State.

As McKenzie points out, the mullet is harvested for its roe, where a single sack is worth $100 in China and Japan, nations where the product is considered a delicacy. (In contrast, the same roe sack will only fetch $10 in the United States.) McKenzie’s boat drifts away from Cortez Beach, where the Indigenous Calusa peoples had fished for generations before the Spanish arrived and where English settlers, in the 1880s, formed the community that still exists today. Historic wooden buildings that served as fish-processing plants remain standing in the waters and the harbor includes a small eatery, and an endless number of pelicans and a few eye-catching cranes who flock to the pier looking for easy food.

crane tight on beak anna maria island

A crane gazes around the harbor of Cortez Beach. At top, Captain Jarrod McKenzie of Star Fish Co. heads out in search of stone-crab claws. (Adrian Brijbassi photos for VacayNetwork.com)

Visitors will instantly be charmed by the place, even before they learn of its distinctness as an eco-friendly fishery. McKenzie tells about it with his finger pressed against the underside of the mullet, showing where an angler slit the fish to remove the roe. The rest of the fish was frozen and then sold to McKenzie to use as bait for his traps that catch the delicacy Floridians — and those many of us who venture to the state — do covet: stone crabs.

MORE COVERAGE: Anna Maria Isle’s Natural Awe

“It’s full circle,” McKenzie says of the stone-crab fishery, which is widely known for its sustainable harvesting of renewable claws but not so much for everything else that is related to how it gets from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast to ice-layered platters decorated with lemon wedges and ramekins of tasty sauces.

Florida accounts for all but 1% of the stone-crab claws harvested globally. The trade amounts to $30 million of economic activity in product sales. There’s also a residual tourism economy where stone crabs attract visitors eager to taste the delicious claw whose white meat flakes off from within its shell like treasure. Like anything of great value, there are rules that govern how it can be claimed. As McKenzie shows, there are strict controls on what stone crabs can be harvested. The minimum size to claim a claw is 2 7/8 inches (73 millimetres). Smaller crabs or pregnant ones caught in a trap must be thrown back into the sea. Once McKenzie has measured a claw to assure it meets the legal limit to harvest it, he pops off the appendage and tosses the adult crab back into the water, where it will regenerate the claw within a year.

It’s that “claw only” aspect of the stone-crab fishery that has earned its sustainability credentials, although a study through the University of Florida found that the environmental goodness of the pratice may be exaggerated because researchers are finding that removing the claw may still impact life expectancy of the crustacean. Nevertheless, it’s a far better way of seizing food from the ocean than any other type of fishery.

stone crab claws up cortez beach florida

Captain Jarrod McKenzie holds a stone crab with two claws that can be harvested. Both appendages will regenerate. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Each crab claw is worth about $10 and average about a half-pound; they can sell for more than $100 per pound on restaurant menus. While his 24-foot skiff bounces on waves near the shoreline of Anna Maria Island, McKenzie pulls up one trap after another, searching for the seafood form of gold. He owns 250 traps and on a good day will haul up 125 pounds worth of claws.

Some of the claws McKenzie saves into his buckets end up on restaurant menus on Anna Maria Island, where Cortez Beach resides, and neighboring Bradenton. You might find it on a menu alongside mullet options, which could include pan-fried, chowder style, or ground up in a tasty spread. Here are three locally owned restaurants on Anna Maria Island where you can experience the coastal flavors raised from the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent bays.

The Porch: As its name suggests, The Porch is a homey restaurant where customer care is a focus. The bar has a welcoming “Cheers” vibe and the ambience is pleasant and unstuffy. It’s a favorite with residents for that reason — and because the food is just as delightful as the atmosphere. Seafood options include Blackened Shrimp and Scallop served with cornbread and corn succotash, a nod to the Florida Gulf region’s proximity to Louisiana.

shrimp and scallop the porch anna maria island

New Orleans-style shrimp and scallop is served with cornbread and corn succotash at The Porch. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

The desserts include Key Lime Pie, of course, but don’t pass on the Burnt Basque Cheesecake, which will whisk you to San Sebastián with its authentic savoryness.

Like just about everywhere else in Manatee County, The Porch will feature stone-crab specials when the product is in-season.

Blue Marlin: The place for mullet, stone crab, and every other kind of seafood you can pluck from the Gulf. Like The Porch, Blue Marlin is in a cozy space. Its decor is cleverly nautical and the flavors blend the familiar with culinary panache.

grouper dijoinnaise blue marlin anna maria island

Grouper is served with dijonaisse sauce at Blue Marlin on Anna Maria Island. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Fish tacos are served with blackened grouper and shrimp is plated in multiple ways. Stone crab and mullet orders are featured regularly when in season.

waterfront restaurant fish tacos anna maria island

Fish tacos are a favorite item at The Waterfront, located across from the boardwalk on Anna Maria Island. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

The Waterfront: Another charming spot, this one overlooking Anna Maria Island’s landmark pier, features a large menu of seafood favorites. Add shrimp to the Kale and Brussels Sprouts Salad and try the excellent grouper fish tacos. You’ll also see some unexpected Asian flavors (Thai Tom Kha seafood soup and Japanese wasabi-crusted tuna) on the menu.

Anna Maria Oyster Bar: The restaurant has multiple locations, including one on Cortez Beach. Although I didn’t get to try it, the oyster bar has a sterling reputation for good food and service.


pelican extending wings pole anna maria island

A pelican takes off from the pier at Cortez Beach, Florida. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Tours with Jarrod McKenzie: Fishing charters are available through Captain McKenzie’s website. Half-day trips for two people start at about $475 USD ($650 CAD).

Where to Stay: Compass Hotel Anna Maria Sound is located just outside of Anna Maria Island, allowing the property to exceed the height restriction for buildings of that destination. The six-story property features 123 rooms, each attractively appointed, making for a pleasant and inviting visit. The amenities include an outdoor pool and a Margaritaville restaurant on the lobby level. There is also the excellent Floridays eatery next to pool. Room Rates: A weekend night in March starts at $331 USD (about $450 CAD), based on a recent search of the property’s booking engine.

Disclosure: Visit Bradenton and Visit Florida supported the visit by VacayNetwork.com Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi. Neither Visit Bradenton, Visit Florida nor any business or organization reviewed the article before it was published.

Adrian is the founder of VacayNetwork.com and Vacay.ca, and the co-founder of the travel-trivia app, Trippzy. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction. He has worked with leading destination marketing organizations, developing digital and social media strategies, and providing them with content marketing solutions. He has visited more than 40 countries and spearheaded the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada annual list that debuted in 2012.