Turtle Fishing Off the Florida Coast

Turtle Fishing Off the Florida Coast

April 03, 1892 –
Key West, Fla., was for many years the center of a prosperous fishery for sea turtles, but recently the business has been rapidly dwindling owing to the improvident methods employed, the young and the old and even the eggs being gathered In without thought of the future.

Three species of turtle, the green, the loggerhead and the hawksbill, are caught and handled by the Key West fishermen and dealers, according to an article in the Montreal Star. The green turtle Is the most highly prized for food. The turtle  is found on the Atlantic seaboard from Long Island to Brazil, and at one time was especially common on the keys along the Florida coast.

The female turtle lays from 300 to 600 eggs In a season, burying them. In the sand and leaving them to hatch without further attention. Owing to their many enemies it is probable that but few of the young turtles survive. The loggerhead turtle occurs along the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Brazil and is common on both the east and the west coast of Florida. It is more common than the green turtle, which is undoubtedly owing to the fact that it is the least valuable of the marine turtles and there is little demand for its flesh. More eggs of this species are taken for food, however, than of any other.

Grows to Enormous Size

It attains an enormous size, far surpassing the green turtle. examples weighing 1,600 pounds have been captured, but the average now is probably about 200 pounds. The female of this species breeds during the summer, the first eggs being laid generally during the night of full moon in June. a peculiar feature of the laying process is that nothing apparently disturbs the creature or is sufficient to drive her away. Striking her with a stick or jumping up and down on her back produces no effect. after finishing, however, she is very timid and flees for the
water at the slightest noise.

turtle fishing key westThe hawksbill or tortoise shell turtle is found on the southern coast of Florida, and thence to the West Indies, the Bermudas and South America. The flesh is rarely eaten, although the eggs are gathered for food and for the manufacture of oil. The great value of this species is in its horny covering, which is the tortoise shell of commerce.

The hawksbill does not grow very large, the maximum weight not exceeding 400 pounds. Those with a greater weight than 100 pounds are not now common on the Florida coast. The shell of the smaller turtle is thin and of little use and it increases in thickness and value with the size of the animal.

In turtling gill nets and cast nets are generally used. The former are about 100 yards in length with a stretch mesh of from 24 to 26 Inches. They are either anchored or drifted at night, and the turtles swimming along get tangled up In them and fall an easy prey.

As the hawksbill turtles spend most of their time at the bottom in deep water, different apparatus must be used to catch them. The turtler first discovers their location by means of a water telescope, which is an ordinary water bucket with a wooden bottom removed and a pane of glass substituted. By putting this on the surface bottom down and placing the head in the upper part the bottom is
clearly visible.

When found a round iron hoop with a bag of coarse twine is lowered over the animal and as he struggles upward he becomes entangled In It and is brought to the surface and drawn into the boat. A three tooth grapnel is also used at times. This is lowered and the animal is caught by the shoulder.

Keeping Turtles Alive After Capture

Turtles generally have special spots in shallow water close to shore to which they return every night, and each animal has Its own wallow or burrow, where it remains when not eating or traveling. It is in these places that they are generally sought. In pegging the aim is to drive the peg in the chimes of the carapace, of
the turtle, as this offers the best holding part and does the least damage to the animal. When a turtle is seen the pegger stands erect on the forward thwart with his miniature harpoon poised for a prompt throw at the right moment.

As soon as the animal is hit It dives and drags the boat forward at a rapid rate. It is very soon compelled to come to the surface to breathe and is then easily secured by means of a rope, If too large to be taken Into the boat.

When landed at Key West the turtles which have been kept alive all that die are thrown away as worthless are placed in small, square pens of wattled stakes, called kraals, built in the water, close to shore and in staked compartments under wharves, and there kept until sale days or until they have recovered from the voyage, Here they are fed on a marine plant known as turtle grass, sweet potato vines, morning glory vines, mangrove leaves, etc. When a sufficient     number of turtles have accumulated an auction sale is held.

The upper shell of the hawksbill is covered with thirteen plates, called
collectively in the trade the head. The plates vary In thickness from an eighth to a quarter of an inch, according to the age and size of the animal and weigh collectively from four to six pounds. These plates form the tortoise shell of commerce and bring about $3 a pound.

In securing the plates the animal must be handled while still alive. The shell is first cut loose from the turtle with a knife. It Is then put into a boiler of boiling water, and In about five minutes the plates can be ripped off with a knife. If allowed to remain a little longer in the water the plates would drop off of their own
accord, but they would be injured by too long submersion in the hot water.

The Cubans use a knife heated almost white and with this tear off the plates and let the still living animal go. Formerly the plates were detached from the bony framework by laying the animal while alive on a hot fire or sometimes by soaking It while alive In boiling water. Fortunately these inhuman methods are rarely practiced now.

The under shell of the hawksbill, called In the trade yellow belly and by the fishermen calipee, is also saved. After being dissolved by means of chemicals it is used In the manufacture of meerschaum pipes. The upper shell of the loggerhead is employed In the manufacture of cheap combs, glue, etc.

The proverbial nine lives of the cat are well known, but the cat is not in it with a turtle when It comes to hanging onto life. Signor Rodi of Italy once cut a turtle’s head off and noted that It lived for twenty-three days without a head, and another whose brain he removed lived for six months, apparently unconscious that
it had suffered any loss.


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