Maritime activities keep Tarpon Springs' culture alive
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03/07/11 Andrea Lypka
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Sponge diver Philip Fatolitis gives a presentation about the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs.


photo by Andrea Lypka

Many coastal Florida communities rely on the Gulf of Mexico for cultural traditions and economics. Fishers, net makers, sponge divers and boat builders shared their passion for the sea and celebrated Greek traditions this weekend at the Gulf Maritime Festival in Tarpon Springs.

Charles Beckham from Cedar Key, Arnold Davis from Cortez and Stuart Pacetti from St. Augustine have two things in common: they are fishermen for a lifetime and they love being in the water. They say the fishing industry and the affiliated businesses such as cast nets making are dying in Florida.

“Fishing is dying away. It is too many regulations, they ruined it. But you know, they know more than we do. They get it out from the book and they don’t listen to someone who is fishing for 60 years who can tell them something...,” he said.

Regulations by US Fish and Wildlife hinder rather than help the fishermen, says Stuart Pacetti. He still weaves his own Spanish cast net and he shares his passion with visitors. It’s Spanish style which has the bag in the bottom, not like Moe’s nest which is English nets, he said.

“The first nets that came to United States we were told that they came to St. Augustine when the Spanish first landed in 1565 and as times goes buy, it was handed down to a bunch of people. I had an uncle who was a good cast net maker and he taught me to make cast nets and I have been doing this since 1955. And I have been doing this off and on ever since… And the primary reason was to put food on the table,” Pacetti said.

But regulations on fishing have taken a toll on this industry, says Charles Beckham. He catches primarily mullet, a fish that most people consider bait fish. He considers mullet a delicacy.

“The state wants us to fish a one inch bar a two inch stretch net, 500 square feet and if you fish over that they are going to put you in jail. It’s a bad law the state passed but you have to live with that,” Beckham said.

Beckham fishes two days a week and then he smokes the mullet.

“I smoke it for about 8 hours with bay wood. And it turns golden brown. My wife does the mullet dip.”

Beckham who goes by the name of Moe is known for his smoked mullet in other parts of Florida.

“I fished this past week. I have 225 pounds of mullet. I dress them and take them to Trenton Florida and they have smoked cabbage and mullet every Friday,” Beckham said.

Arnold Davis has been fishing since he was 13. He says he sees the fishing industry from Pensacola to Key West dwindle away. The culprit is overfishing.

“They allowed it to be overfished to the point that it looked like in the middle of the summer there wouldn’t be any fish,” he said. “We should probably be seeing what’s being done with our fish, it shouldn’t be down like that and relegated to a couple of fishermen.”

Despite state regulations, these fishermen continue to fish.

“I am just gonna keep fishing till I am gone… I am too old to do anything else know,” Beckham said.

Bill Gresko doesn’t intend to give up either. He started sponge diving 23 years ago. It’s a dangerous job so safety is first, he says.

“It’s a lot of fun being in the water," Gresko said. "We walk the bottom, we are connected to the boat with a 600 foot airhose. I have the buoy attached to me and wherever I go the buoy follows me. And the boat follows that.”

Today there are only four boats left in Tarpon Springs that are used for sponge diving full time. He owns one of those boats. In the early 1940s there were over 200 boats in the harbor.

“What happened was that we had red tights over the year that killed the sponges in the beds and a lot of those guys went bridge painting. Back then, it was mostly Greeks. Only a few would come back,” he said.

Fishing, sponge diving, and handcrafted diving helmets are part of Tarpon Spring’s cultural heritage. National Heritage fellow of Tarpon Springs Nicholas Toth says he keeps doing what he loves: doing handcrafted sponge diving helmets from copper and brass.

“My grandfather came to this country in 1913 and he was instrumental and he was instrumental in keeping the sponge fleet going not just through his creation of these beautiful diving helmets. … My grandfather did pretty much everything to keep the fleet going,” he said.

This year, the city’s curator of Arts and Historical resources Tina Bucuvalas keeps the fleet going for the festival.

“The city intends to keep continuing this event and I think it is wonderful to have the city sponsor an event for regional culture,” she said.

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