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Oceans Past: A Guide to Oceans Future
Date:1/14/2008

end of 1939, the yellow and vase sponges had suffered, nearly being entirely wiped out, while 70 per cent of the valuable sheepswool sponges had been eliminated from the Keys. Although overflowing fresh water and local pollution were both blamed, the culprit appeared to be a fungus-like filament, which started in a small area of the sponge and expanded until the entire sponge was consumed. By early 1940, the disease had made its way up the coast and Greek divers observed extensive sponge mortality as deep as 70 feet (12m). The remaining sponge fishermen in Florida were out of work by the end of 1940.

During the 1880s, there were more than 2000 spongers, but in 1938, the local newspaper reported that only 40 men in Monroe County called themselves spongers, with only five working regularly: Ben Felton, Nelson Spencer, William Spencer, James Thompson and John Spencer. The Key grounds had been considered exhausted at the turn of the century, and under continued pressure, its sponge banks were almost commercially extinct by the 1930s. While the immediate cause of sponge mortality was disease, the fishermen were far from blameless in the disappearance of the stock.

Evidence of over-fishing for sponges throughout Florida is prevalent, both in descriptive accounts and in fisheries statistics. In the early years of the fishery, large vessels in bay grounds had fished 30km to 50km from the shore. Divers had moved far offshore by 1938, some going up to 240km from the coast to find sponges. During the 1930s, the best sponges were found only at depths down to 120 feet (37m).

The era of sponge fishing lasted less than a century, but it left its mark both on the culture of south Florida and the ecology of the reefs. People typically think of coral reef decline as beginning in the 1980s, but the collapse of the sponge populations in the 1930s shows that the unraveling of this ecosystem began decades earlier, says Loren McClenachan.

Sponger Money
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Contact: Kira Paulli Pravato
kpp@ruc.dk
452-461-4096
Census of Marine Life
Source:Eurekalert  

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