​​​​​​​​​Key West Turtle Museum

200 Margaret St, Key West, FL 33040

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The Key West Turtle Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the region's unique maritime history, exploring the once-thriving turtle fishing industry that nearly drove local sea turtle populations to extinction by the early 20th century.

History of Turtle Fishing in Key West

 
In the late 1800s, Key West became a major hub for turtle canning, supplying exotic turtle meat and soup to restaurants across the United States and Europe.  The industry centered around "Turtle Kraals" - holding pens where live green turtles were kept before slaughter at an adjacent cannery.  At its peak, Key West produced the vast majority of canned turtle meat in the country, with fishermen paid $30-50 per turtle caught.  However, rampant overharvesting devastated local populations, and by the 1950s, conservation efforts were initiated to protect the endangered species. 
 

Turtle Kraals and Holding Pens

The turtle kraals were shallow water enclosures constructed by driving wooden poles into the seafloor, spaced closely enough to confine the turtles while allowing water flow.  These holding pens were located adjacent to the cannery building, providing easy access for hoisting captured turtles out of the water for processing.  The concrete pillars visible today are remnants of kraals built in the 1920s. At the peak of Key West's turtle industry in the early 1900s, kraals could be found all along the Florida Keys from the Dry Tortugas to Indian Key.  The moat surrounding Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas was even used as a temporary kraal at times.  An 1873 survey map refers to present-day Crawl Key as "Kraal Key" due to the turtle pens once located there. 

Turtle Canning Process

Turtle Canning ProcessThe turtle canning process in Key West involved several steps to transform the live animals into canned meat and soup products. Once captured, green turtles were held in the kraals until needed for slaughter.  The turtles were then killed and butchered, with all parts of the animal utilized - the meat and fat for consumption, and the skin and shells for leather goods and jewelry. To prepare the meat for canning, it would first be cleaned and boiled to remove any remaining particles from the butchering process. 
The cooked meat was then picked from the bones and packed into cans with a salt brine solution. 
The sealed cans were then heated again to sterilize the contents, creating a shelf-stable product that could be shipped nationwide. 
For turtle soup, the meat would be cooked down into a rich broth seasoned with sherry and other spices.  This concentrated soup base was then canned using the same process as the plain meat.  Upon receipt, consumers would add water or other ingredients to reconstitute the soup before serving.