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.
|Contact: Kira Paulli Pravato|
Census of Marine Life