September 22, 2021
Karen Bell is a Florida Icon

Photo: Chris Lake

"What we do is so important. We feed people. It makes me proud just to be a part of it," says Karen Bell, President A.P. Bell Fish.

Karen Bell is a Florida Icon

President, A.P. Bell Fish, Cortez; age 57

Art Levy | 5/26/2021

My dad is part of two of the old Cortez fishing families, the Bells and Fulfords. My grandfather was Aaron, A.P. Bell. He was born in North Carolina, Beaufort, and came here when he was about 5. My grandmother was a Fulford. We still have the house she was born in right here in the village. So I’ve got the Cortez side through my dad, but my mother was from Buffalo, N.Y. She was really elegant, and how those two came together is beyond me, a fisherman and this lady who literally would set her hair every day and dress in long, flowy clothes.

I’ve already had COVID. For me, fortunately, it was just a bad cold, but I couldn’t taste or smell anything for nine days. You’d think during those nine days, you just wouldn’t eat, but no. I kept trying to see if I could taste. It was sad. It was like I was eating cardboard.

You learn things in this job. Haiti, for example. We used to ship about 40,000 pounds of mullet to Haiti every year — until the earthquake in 2010. They had no infrastructure to support a purchase like that until about 2019, just two years ago. Isn’t that amazing? I mean, that’s their access to food.

Litter can make a place so unattractive. It not only looks awful, but it makes it seem like no one cares. I’m notorious for walking around picking up trash.

There’s so much anger in the world today, although I do think it seems to be a little better since the new year. I’m a Republican, but I didn’t care for Mr. Trump because of his mouth. Not to get into that whole political debate, but I don’t talk to people like that. My fishermen don’t talk to people like that. We communicate without speaking down to people.

Some of the hardest things I’ve gone through are probably what I learned the most from.

When I went away to school in Boca — I went to Florida Atlantic University — I really missed Cortez and the west coast of Florida. I love it here. The people are genuine and down to earth. After school, I called dad and said I want to come home. I told him I’d really like to work in the fish house and he was like, ‘no.’ I think he wanted an easier life for me. He said the fish house is all men and the fishing industry’s a man’s world. I just think he thought it would be too hard for me.

Why is Cortez still here? We’re just stubborn. The people here are resilient. It just seems like no matter what, people stay. Like the net ban in 1995 was really devastating here. Our sales dropped 50%, which is huge, but we survived.

I hate I-4. That’s just the craziest road to travel. I’ll go whatever back way I can to avoid that road.

You should know what you’re eating and where it comes from. All seafood is supposed to be labeled. That’s part of the FDA rules. I always tell people to ask your server at a restaurant where the fish comes from. Even if they don’t know, they should know. And if they don’t know, they ought to go back and find out.

My parents had a tumultuous relationship. I had a brother who died at 16, when I was about 12 or 13, and mom blamed my dad. My brother was 15 and dad signed for him to get a motorcycle. It was a freak accident. Mom never forgave dad.

I actually have a little escape. I go up to Homosassa, usually every few weekends. I have a little, bitty house up there where there’s nobody. I take the dog. That’s my sanity, where I can get a little bit of peace.

Honestly, I actually believe it’s an advantage being a female in this business. The men respond really well to me. They’re respectful. I tell the fishermen all the time that they’re ambassadors for the industry and when they’re out on a boat or out in the world, they sure as well better be good ambassadors for what we do. I might say ‘shame on you’ to one of them if they do something that I consider outside the lines. If a man said that, they might be like, ‘shut up,’ but I can say it, and they know I mean it. I think it’s easier for them to hear it coming from a woman.

I’ve never fished offshore. If I want a fish, I walk in the cooler.

Gutted mullet is one of the favorite food proteins around the world — other than in the United States. Mullet is a very strong fish compared to grouper. Grouper, you get that white, flaky meat and a mild, mild flavor. Mullet on the other hand, it’s one of those fish that are really good for you. It’s full of omega 3s, but I think some people don’t care for the stronger flavor. I love it blackened, smoked and grilled. And fried is obviously always good.

I was married for six years. He left for another woman who didn’t work a lot. That’s what he said. I always worked a lot.

To me, it’s so easy to overcook seafood. And I swear, even most restaurants overcook it. It literally ruins seafood if you take all the moisture out of it. The seafood needs to lose that translucence. It needs to be opaque. Take if off the heat before you think it’s done — because it is done.

Over the years, I’ve learned not to overreact. I’m pretty calm in general. Occasionally, I blow up. I hate when I do that because it just doesn’t help anything, but it doesn’t happen very often. You really have to push me a lot for me to scream.

 

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