Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
In the beginning it was inhabited by only mosquitoes and pirates. Key West, Florida, originally named Cayo Hueso (Island of Bones) by the Spanish in the 1500s, has endured hurricanes, fire, neglect and bankruptcy. Key West was sold by a Spaniard, Juan Salas, in 1822 to John Simonton, a Mobile, Alabama, businessman for $2,000. In that same year, Lieutenant Matthew Perry sailed to raise the American flag over the country's newest possession and confirmed that it had one of the largest, finest deep-water ports in the country. After raising the American flag, Naval Commodore David Porter set up headquarters in Key West to suppress the pirates. Porter considered Key West a military post and appropriated settlers' livestock, buildings and supplies for military use. He even tried to change the name in honor of the Secretary of the Navy.
After the pirates were eliminated, the only fear the captain of a vessel had was hurricanes and running aground on the reefs. These factors contributed greatly to the salvage business early in Key West's existence. Salvaging survived until the 1850s, at which time reef lighthouses began to spring up bringing the beginning of the end to the profits earned from salvage.
However, even before its settlement, fishing was one of Key West's principle industries. The earliest non-Indian inhabitants of Key West were seamen from New England and the Bahamas. The economy consisted entirely of fishing and salvage. From the first part of the nineteenth century, fisherman from St. Augustine fished the area and sold their catch to Havana markets. Many of the fishermen became permanent residents and carried on their trade for years. In 1831 the fishing industry in Key West was estimated to exceed $100,000.
Boom and Bust
In 1860 Key West was the wealthiest town per capita in the United States, and in 1880 it was Florida's largest city with a population of 9,890.
Another of the first fisheries in Key West was sponge. As early as 1852 it was discovered that the sponges growing in Florida waters were equal in quality to those being harvested in the Mediterranean. The people of Key West founded the sponge trade in Florida. In the early days of the industry, sponges brought a price of ten cents a pound. As the product became better known, the price increased rapidly. The sponge fishery flourished, and by 1890 Key West was the commercial sponging capital of the world. At the turn of the century, Key West's sponging fleet was 350 boats strong, employed 1,400 men, and harvested up to 165 tons a year worth nearly three quarters of a million dollars. Nearly all those sponges were harvested from shallow waters using a pole with a hook on the end. The decline of the industry began when spongers, ignoring the laws to preserve the resource, harvested sponges indiscriminately. Eventually, a deadly fungus destroyed all the sponge beds in the Florida Keys, and cheap synthetic sponges were invented to replace natural ones. Gradually and steadily, the sponge beds returned, and in 1918 Key West harvested 107,000 pounds of sponges, and in 1999 the sponge industry landed over 538,000 pounds.
During the decline of the sponge fishery, fisherman had to turn to other species. Grouper and spiny lobster have continued to be mainstays of the industry in Key West. Before the Cubans were able to establish their own fishery, the Key West people enjoyed a long and profitable grouper trade with them. Vessels were brought to Key West from as far away as New England and some were built locally to participate in the fishing. In 1880 the fleet consisted of 21 vessels employing 145 men. Prior to1880 the grouper fishery had been the most valuable in the South.
1513 - Easter Sunday - Ponce de Leon maps the island of Key West.
1763 - Spain trades all of Florida to the British for the port of Havana, previously taken by the British in 1762.
1783 - The British, having lost the civil war to the colonies, return Florida to the Spanish to prevent control by the new United States.
1815 - Island of Key West given to Juan Pablo Salas by the Spanish Government.
1821 - The United States takes formal possession of Florida from Spain.
Territorial Governor Andrew Jackson divides Florida into two counties: Escambia, west of the Suwannee River; and St. Johns, east and south.
New Jersey trader John W. Simonton purchases Key West from Juan Salas in a Havana bar for $2,000.
January 8 - The City of Key West is incorporated.
1912 - January 22 - Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad is completed to Key West.
Key West has suffered through two major fires, numerous hurricanes, (some say the strongest on record, 250 miles per hour winds), near financial collapse and outright neglect, all of which threatened to destroy the city and its economic system. With all that it has endured, Key West itself and its fishing industry have survived. The citizens, past and present of Key West, Florida, are proud of what they do and what they have accomplished. From the first settlement well into the future, fishing has and will remain a large part of the Key West economy and culture.
A 1924 report of the U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries estimated that the various fishery products credited in Monroe County were over 3 million pounds. This compares to nearly 21 million pounds in 1999 as reported by National Marine Fisheries. The same report estimates that in 1918 landings of grouper were 200,000 pounds and spiny lobster were 345,000 pounds. In 1999, the grouper and spiny lobster landings were 300,000 and 6.7 million pounds, respectively. Prior to 1920, when an ice and cold storage plant was built, the fishing industry suffered losses from an inability to care for their excess catch. Most notably in 1919 when the only ice plant in the city was disabled. Until ice became available, the commercial boats used live wells to store their fish.
At one time, fishermen in Florida actually discarded shrimp caught in there nets because their was little market for them. Florida's shrimp industry began near the Fernandina beaches around Jacksonville in 1902. Introduction of the otter trawl in 1912 marked the beginning of a great expansion in shrimp fishing by enabling the fishermen to fish in deep water and drag where the concentration of shrimp was the heaviest. Around 1949 a decline in production necessitated the exploration of new grounds, which resulted in the development of Key West as the chief shrimp port of Florida. John Salvador discovered the Key West grounds in 1950. While examining a daylight trawl at about dusk, he found many more shrimp than normal in his catch, prompting him to put the nets back overboard. This second trawl was filled with shrimp, and "pink gold" had been discovered. Some 300 boats quickly came to Key West, and the first full season, 1950-1951, produced 15 million pounds. Before the Key West discoveries, Apalachicola was the main shrimp-producing center on the Florida Gulf Coast. Currently, Key West pink shrimp make up almost 50 percent of the total Monroe County shrimp landings.
Some reports discount the stone crab fishery in Key West. But as early as the 1918 statistics from the U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries report, the stone crab fishery has also flourished. In 1918 stone crab landings were 18,000 pounds and increased to 2.5 million pounds in 1999.
Famous and Infamous
The native population, those born on the island, call themselves "Conchs" and constitute a unique blend of Bahamian, Cuban, and New England seafaring heritage. Many of the local families have been in Key West for more than seven generations. Some even claim to having never been off the island.
The rich fishing grounds, outstanding year-round weather, and "laid back" attitude has resulted in Key West becoming home to the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, James Audubon, and singer songwriter, Jimmy Buffet. More Pulizter Prize winners have lived in Key West than any other city. President Franklin Roosevelt was a frequent visitor, and President Harry Truman even chose Key West to be his "Little White House" retreat.
Island lore crosses into popular culture. Novels, movies and television have indirectly introduced Key West to many around the world. The city also celebrates itself, its history, diversity and varied reputation in many ways, most notably during Fantasy Fest, Key West's answer to Mardi Gras. Each October as many as 50,000 visitors from around the world gather for this ten day event culminating in a costumed parade through the streets.
Information provided by:
Museum of Florida History
R.A. Gray Building
500 South Bronough Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0250
- Museum of Florida History