Ask anyone who remembers Key West in the 1960s what the Historic Seaport looked like back then, when it was still called Key West Bight and was still a rather rough neighborhood of hard-working — and hard-partying — commercial shrimp boats.
But those days have long been gone, and the bight for decades has housed a collection of catamarans and sailboats offering snorkel trips and sunset cruises. Thanks to the efforts of the late Paul and Evalena Worthington, the harbor also has been home to stately, historic wooden schooners. But the commercial shrimping industry that put Key West on the map during the “pink gold rush” of the 1960s had been relegated to the past and remembered only in historic photos — until this year.
Daniel Smith and James Phelps, who own the Miss Key West shrimp boat and Southeastern Shrimp & Seafood Co., are proud to say they aren’t just a part of Key West history, but are making history by bringing back an industry that was as quintessentially Key West as sponging, wrecking and, now, tourism.
The Miss Key West late last month offloaded — for the first time in 30 years — sacks of locally caught Key West pink shrimp onto the docks at the Key West Historic Seaport.
The vessel “is the only registered and producing commercial shrimp vessel in Monroe County,” Smith said, adding that the shrimp boats on Stock Island are either unused relics or are owned by companies in Louisiana and elsewhere.
He added that he’s in the process of meeting with local seafood restaurants and vendors, who can now offer locally caught Key West pink shrimp from a locally owned and locally docked vessel.
The return of a shrimp boat to Key West Harbor made headlines in FisheryNation.com, a website dedicated to commercial fishing and the people it employs, as well as fishery regulations nationwide.
The website writes of the Miss Key West: “It was once a significant part of Key West’s economy, but due to numerous economic forces, the last of the shrimping vessels in the harbor left around 30 years ago, according to Dan Smith. But as of a few weeks ago, Smith and James Phelps have brought the first commercial shrimp vessel back to the Key West Harbor since that time. It now sits in the same place where the Schooner Western Union, the flagship of Florida, once was next to Schooner Wharf Bar. On Nov. 30, the two owners stood on the docks next to the Miss Key West, along with their captain, Mark Thomson, and some relatives. Phelps and Smith came up with the idea to bring a shrimp vessel back to Key West as both of their families were historically part of the fishing and shrimping industry in Key West.”
The Key West Art & Historical Society has a significant collection of photos, artifacts and information about Key West’s shrimping industry.
“In 1965, Monroe County officials announced that in the first six months of the year, 7.5 million pounds, adding up to $4 million worth of pink shrimp, was landed in the county,” KWAHS reports. “Florida pink shrimp were discovered off the Dry Tortugas in 1949. Fishermen flocked to the Key West Bight bringing nearly 500 shrimp trawlers in the 1950s and 1960s. There were so many boats in port that it was often said that you could walk from one side of the seaport to the other without ever touching water. This era is often referred to as the ‘pink gold rush.’ During its height, the industry netted more than $5 million each year.”