Sponges: Industry, Harvesting & Uses

Instructor: Elizabeth Friedl

Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Despite their plant-like appearance, sponges are animals that live in the sea. They have a long history of being used for the same things we use artificial sponges for today. Come learn about this history and discover some surprising uses of sponges.

What are Sponges?

Washing your dishes in your sink probably isn't a big deal to you. Dishes get dirty, you clean them, and then you move on with your life. But stop to think for a minute about all of the important modern advances that allow us to take this simple task for granted. Clean, hot water pumped right into our homes; dish soap in just about any scent you can imagine; and perhaps most importantly, a sponge that soaks up that water and soap and cleans your dishes with minimal effort.

Natural sponges come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors
sea sponges

Today, the sponges you buy at the store are likely made from synthetic materials and produced in a factory. But natural sponges are animals that come from the sea and have been used for a long time for the same purposes, among others. Some people think that sponges, and other immobile organisms like corals, that live on the bottom of the sea floor are plants. But these primitive invertebrates truly belong to the animal kingdom.

History of Sponging

Sponges have been harvested for many centuries. Ancient Greeks and Romans used sponges for bathing and cosmetic purposes, as well as for embalming bodies before burial. Sponge diving was even a sport of the Olympics of the Ancient Greeks!

Early Sponge Harvesting

In the late 1800s, the Greeks began sponge diving using suits with air hoses attached that allowed them to dive to greater depths. In the United States, the sponging industry began somewhat by accident in the early 1800s in Key West, Florida. Sponges would wash up on shore after storms, and turtle fishermen were accidentally snagging them in their fishing nets. This prompted folks to begin intentionally harvesting sponges.

The early sponge harvesters were called hookers because they used a pronged rake to hook the sponges and bring them up to the boat from shallow waters. For a while sponges were only harvested and distributed locally, but by the 1900s sponging was big business in the U.S., and Tarpon Springs, Florida had become the new 'capital' in the sponge harvesting industry.

Changes to the Industry

Sponge harvesting in the U.S. was revolutionized with the introduction of the dive suit
sponge diver

This was in no small part due to two men named John Corcosis and John Cheyney. Corcosis came to the U.S. from Greece, and specifically to Florida in 1895 to work in the sponge industry. He met John Cheyney, who hired him and asked him to make the industry more efficient. Corcosis brought hundreds of Greek divers to Florida, and in 1905 introduced the mechanized sponge fishing boat.

Early sponge diving was very modest because divers would dive into the water holding on to a weight to take them to the bottom, cut off a sponge, and then swim back up to the surface. They had to hold their breath the entire time, which limited both the depth they could go to and the amount of time they could stay under water.

But the Greek divers that came to Florida brought with them new diving methods and technologies. Most importantly, the dive suit with an air hose connected to allow divers to breathe underwater. This meant that divers could stay down longer, go to deeper depths, and search for sponges underwater instead of trying to see them from the boat.

The sponge industry remained strong until the 1940s. During this time, blight, an infection caused by a fungus or other pathogenic organism, decimated the sponge populations. It was also during this time that artificial sponges were first introduced. Both the sponge beds and the sponging industry took a significant hit. It took until the 1970s, but the sponge beds eventually recovered. The industry also recovered, and in the 1980s even more sponge beds were discovered for harvesting.

Natural sponges are still harvested, sold, and used today, though with more of a focus on sustainability than before. Sponges are a renewable resource in that they can regrow when a piece is taken off. But when too much is taken off it reduces the chance that the sponge can survive. Today instead of hooking, which affords sponges a meager 41% chance of survival, sponge harvesters are required to cut sponges, intentionally leaving enough behind for the sponge to regenerate. Cutting increases a sponge's chance of survival to 71%! This minor change will leave a major impact on the sustainability of the sponge industry.

Uses of Sponges

Today, we use artificial sponges for many of the same purposes that natural sponges have been used for centuries
cleaning a car with a sponge

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