Key West’s Turtle Kraals – a rather different attraction for a rather different time.
Until the arrival of cruise ships in the 1980s, visitors to Key West would be considered to be fairly intrepid. Even today, it’s a 160 mile (257 km) drive from Miami that can take over three hours in the best of conditions. Visitors to Key West wanted to experience the exotic nature of the culture on the island, hoping to appreciate what drew Ernest Hemingway, John James Audubon and President Harry Truman to the southernmost city.
The most unlikely tourist attraction in Key West was probably the Turtle Kraals, both a supplier of fresh meat and a major industry for the locals. Made up of a facility for keeping live sea turtles as well as a cannery, it was a place like no other in the US. The kraals (sometimes spelled “crawls”) were fenced-in, wooden sea pens. Sea turtles would be held in them until they were needed. They were constructed so fresh seawater could flow through them allowing the turtles to stay alive.
The word kraal is an Afrikaans word from South Africa. It’s suggested that it’s derived from the Portuguese word curral which is associated with the Spanish word corral. In South Africa, kraals are an enclosure for cattle, located within a village. It isn’t clear as to how the term found its way to the Keys but cattle kraals and and turtle kraals are obviously similar.
In the Keys, the word has been in use for around 200 years, if not more. Upon seeing them, John James Audubon would write in 1832: “Each turtler has his crawl which is a square wooden building or pen, formed of logs, which are so far separated as to allow the tide to pass freely through, and stand erect in the mud. The turtles are placed in the enclosure, fed and kept there until sold.”
This was before turtles became an industry. After the Civil War, sea turtles were caught in huge numbers and were subsequently processed for their meat and their decorative shells. It may be hard to believe in the 21st century, but turtle meat, especially in soups, was not only popular, it was considered a delicacy. Both products would be shipping throughout the US, to Europe and beyond.
In the 1870s, sea turtles were plentiful in the local waters and the new industry flourished, helping to make Key West on the most prosperous cities in the country and one of the most populous cities in the state. In 1870, the population was 5,016. In only ten years, it had nearly doubled to 9,890. By 1890, it had nearly doubled once again, reaching 18,080.
Sea turtles had a part in that growth, but by the 1900s, the waters around the Keys were being fished out of sea turtles. Ships had to go farther and farther away to find them. By the 1920s, fishermen were going as far as the coast of Central America.
It was also the 1920s that saw the consolidation of the kraals and canning facilities in the Key West Bight. This was the location that became a regular place for Key West’s visitors to watch the process of pulling the large animals out of the water and moving them into the cannery for butchering.
This continued until 1971, when the first catch restrictions were created. Part of the restrictions was a ban of catching turtles under a certain size. This effectively ended commercial fishing, because there were few, if any, turtles left in the Caribbean larger than that size. Today, sea turtles are protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Hunting them became completely illegal.
The cannery and kraals shifted to become an attraction which presented the story of the now dead sea turtle industry. In 1994, the facility – officially known as the Thompson Fish House, Turtle Cannery and Kraals – was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1995, the cannery building collapsed into the water, but it was rebuilt in 1998.
The nearby Mel Fisher Maritime Museum opened the Key West Turtle Museum at the cannery and kraals in 2009. The museum is open seasonally, during cooler weather and tells about sea turtles, the former industry and ongoing conservation efforts.