Key West Shrimping -
Shrimping in Key West
Key West is known for it shrimp, which is caught locally and served up fresh in local restaurants. Due to shrimp's featured position on most menus and in tourguide books for Key West, most visitors will eventually feel an underlying urge to sample shrimp at one point during their stay. That, and of course Key Lime Pie are local specialties that most cannot resist trying at least once. Shrimp, for all its association with Key West dining tradition, has been a local specialty since the 1940s. Shrimp are caught by shrimpers who drag gigantic nets...the boats look like travelling trapeze platforms, with all the safety netting strung about. Shrimp boats today are not as ubiquitous as they were in the 1970s, when hundreds of them worked out of Key West. In fact, no shrimpers go out of Key West at all anymore. They do shrimp out of Stock Island, which is just outside of Key West. The boats go past Key West, so there's a good chance you'll see them in the waters around Key West Harbour if you're in town when they shrimpers go out. They are unmistakable, with long arms on either side holding draped nets. They will also probably have a gaggle of seagulls following as well, looking for a meal or two. No other boats in the harbour look like shrimp boats. Look for them in the afternoon, going out towards the Gulf Side, or north of Key West. To get from Stock Island to the Northwest Passage, which is the channel that leads larger boats around Key West towards the Gulf of Mexico, the shrimp boats have to pass right in front of Key West Harbour, which is also where you might happen to be spending a lot of time, since this is where Mallory Square and the beginning of Duval Street are located, not to mention a lot of the museums and other tourist attrations. Look for the shrimp boats if you're near the harbor because they are a slice of the real Key West.
The shrimp boats of Key West and Stock Island have a short but very colorful history which is worth mentioning. First, you have to know about the Mariel Boat Lift, which occurred in 1980. If you've seen the movie Scarface, then the first ten minutes of the movie pretty much sum up what the Maril Boat lift was all about. Basically, Fidel Castro opened up Cuba for a little while and allowed Cuban citizens to leave the country. Well, people in southern Florida went bananas and every boat that could float was soon on its way to Cuba to get people and bring them over to the United States. President Jimmy Carter called this a rescue mission, declaring an "open arms, open heart policy". The Freedom Flotilla, as the horde of boats shuttling Cubans to the Florida Keys and the Miami area was called, included the shrimp boats of Key West. What would make commercial fisherman abandon their nets to go "rescue" Cubans? After all, they were harvesting pink gold and making lots and lots of money. Ahh, money...yes, the Cuban refugees were worth over a thousand dollars a head in some cases, and this was big money. Hundreds of boats went out of Key West, shortly returning with Cuban refugees, leaving them on the docks at Truman Annex, then heading south again to Cuba for more.
The Freedom Flotilla, or Operation Assist, as it was also called, continued until people began noticing that lots of the refugees seemed sketchy...either a little touched in the head, or downright dangerous. The Key West shrimp boats decided to go back to shrimping once they discovered they had been helping Fidel Castro empty out his prisons and mental hospitals!
Simply returning to their shrimping businesses turned out to be easier said then done, since the US government impounded their boats when they returned to the docks. Why? President Carter had discovered the unsavory quality of the Cuban refugees before the Key West shrimpers had, and told everyone to stop the shuttling. The shrimp boats, who were, let's say motivated very much by the money to be made, had ignored the demand to cease and as a result found themselves in violation of federal law. About eighty percent of the commercial fishing boats...shrimpers included, were seized. The seizures were later declared unlawful and everything returned to normal. Today's fleet, although dramatically reduced, can once again be seen plying the waters around Key West, headed for the Gulf of Mexico for shrimp.