The Pink Gold Rush

Shrimp Fleet, Key West, February 1950. Negative # 1984.187.125993F

In late 1949, 100 years after the peak of the California Gold Rush, Pink Gold was discovered off the Florida Keys near Dry Tortugus. The “gold” was a grooved variety of shrimp called “pink” shrimp in the industry – scientifically Panaeus duorarum. In early 1950, the first shrimpers arrived in Key West looking to off load and process their treasures. On February 11, 1950, The New York Times likened the Pink Gold Rush to that of the Klondike gold strike in the late 1890’s.

More than 100 vessels were already at Key West with another 100 reported to be on their way. Fishing vessels and companies “staked claims” to docking space and freezing facilities; ice was being imported from Miami and rooms were hard to come by. The Paulsen-Webber Cordage Corporation reported an upsurge in the demand of “shrimp rope” and wire rope and shifted all production schedules to give priority to the urgent requests.

“Pink Gold,” being nocturnal feeders, meant the best catches were made at night but the lack of sounding equipment and the presence of coral formations made fishing difficult. Continuing the trend at WW II’s end, the new trawlers being built were larger, more powerful, better equipped, and capable of longer distances from port and longer times at sea. In 1950, the fleet expansion continued rapidly with the desire, not only for “Pink Gold,” but also for fishery exploratory work looking for latent resources and the expansion of existing fisheries. Many of the shrimp trawlers were built in St. Augustine soon to be known as “Shrimp Boat City.”

Diversity was the backbone of shrimping in St. Augustine. Before the American Revolution, indentured servants were brought from the Mediterranean to work on the indigo plantation at New Smyrna, Florida and it was their descendants, Menorcans, who migrated to St. Augustine. Many strikers (crewmen) were of African descent and approximately 50 percent of the early boats had African-American captains. Shrimping offered a path to ownership as many fleet owners allowed a captain to work-off the vessel as he fished.

The Pink Gold Rush prompted St. Augustine to shift focus from catching shrimp to building shrimp trawlers (both shrimping and boatbuilding were a part of St. Augustine’s economy since early 20th century). The boat builders and their suppliers of propellers, engines, rigs, nets, generators, and other machinery saw sales grow to unprecedented levels. St. Augustine became a hull-specific boatbuilding city and at its peak in the 1970s, one builder, DESCO was producing 15 trawlers a month.

Pictured here is the shrimping fleet at Key West, February 1950. Three of the trawlers where the name is visible – Seabee, American Kid, and Sarah Marie  – were built in St. Augustine.

The Key West docks quickly filled to capacity and shrimpers began to use San Carlos Island and Estero Island dock to unload their catches. In 1954, other pink shrimp grounds were discovered around Sanibel Island, Texas, and Campeche, Mexico. The heyday of the Pink Gold Rush was during the 1950s and 1960s and although the shrimp industry faces competition from farmed shrimp today, the shrimp fleet of San Carlos Island still off-loads wild pink shrimp.

Carol Mowrey