The City of Tarpon Springs is located at the mouth of the Anclote River on the Gulf of Mexico in central Florida. Probably inspired by the tarpon that inhabit the nearby waters, the name Tarpon Springs was given to the settlement that appeared there sometime in the 1860s or 1870s. The Orange Belt Railway, which served as the major transportation route, arrived in Tarpon Springs in 1887, making it a hub of import and export of both people and cargo. And the same year Tarpon Springs became the first city to be incorporated on the Pinellas peninsula. The construction of Anclote Key lighthouse made transportation to and from Tarpon Springs by sea safer. These improvements in transportation made Tarpon Springs a popular winter resort for wealthy northerners in the late 18th and early 19th century.
The Sponge Diving Industry in Tarpon Springs
Key West fishermen, in search of turtles, accidently discovered the sponge beds off the mouth of the Anclote River in 1873 when their nets became snagged on them. Spongers from Key West relocated to Tarpon Springs to work the newly discovered beds and some of them stayed, helping grow the community. To process and pack the sponges, sponge-packing houses were built in Tarpon Springs during the 1890s and sponge presses were installed, prompting sponge buyers moved to town. The center of the sponge industry gradually shifted its center from Key West, Cuba and the Bahamas to Tarpon Springs and by 1900 the Tarpon Springs was considered the largest sponge port in the country.
The Greek Community in Tarpon Springs
The first mechanized sponge boat was brought to Tarpon Springs in 1905 along with five hundred Greek sponge divers from all over the Greek islands. And over the next few years more immigrants followed and new businesses were established to serve the growing Greek community. Sponge divers, boat-builders, merchants and brokers all came to Tarpon Springs to live and work, creating a highly-integrated industry.
In 1906 the Sponge Exchange Bank was established to support industry activities. And two years later, in 1908, the Sponge Exchange was founded. The Sponge Exchange was an organized system established for grading and selling the sponges. The original Sponge Exchange consisted of storage bins surrounding a central auction block in the center.
Acme Sponge Company in Tarpon Springs
In 1938 by Michael G. Cantonis founded the Acme Sponge and Chamois Company. At age 21, after borrowing $1000 from a friend, he went to New York and began importing and selling natural sponges from the Mediterranean. To be closer to its primary customer base, the company was moved to Chicago in 1947. And in the 1950s, imported natural chamois and synthetic sponges were added to the product line. In 1959 the company began planning a tannery to tan chamois leather, which was finally opened in 1962. And in 1977, Acme’s facilities were consolidated and relocated to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where they remain today.
Natural sea sponges are harvested from the bottom of the ocean by fishing boats that specialize in sponge fishing. These boats are often owned and operated by families who have been sponge divers for decades, or, in some cases, even centuries. In many areas around the world, sponge diving has been a family tradition for thousands of years.
What Are Sea Sponges
Sea sponges are aquatic animals that cling to a hard surfaces on the sea floor such as rocks or coral and, once attached, do not move around. They are classified as animals, but have neither a central nervous system nor brain. The processed sponges that are sold and used for cleaning are only part of the animal. Living sponges are coated with a dark elastic skin that has pores through which they move water to feed or filter nutrients. Between the inner and outer skins of the living sponge is a gray gelatinous substance called gurry. Processed sponges have had the outer skin and the gurry removed from the structural element or skeleton of the sponge. And it is that skeleton that we use as a sponge.
Sea Sponges are Harvested Sustainably
Sea sponges are harvested by divers using specially designed cutting hooks or knives. These leave enough of the base of the sponge for it to quickly regenerate. Once cut, the divers gently squeeze the gurry out of the sponge and take them back to the boats. The sponges are then pounded to clean them, and then covered with wet burlap sacks on the deck of the ship, where the heat from the sun releases a gas that rots the sponges’ skins so that they can be more easily removed.
Sea Sponge Harvesting Techniques
Sea sponges are harvested in many different countries using a variety of methods, but in the United Sates, sponges are harvested using sustainable methods that actually help the sponge population as a whole. Specially trained divers, who regularly and systematically rotate fishing grounds, sustainably harvest sponges by cutting the sponge to ensure that the base is left intact, which will allow the sponge to quickly regenerate. Rotating the harvesting or fishing grounds allows the sponges time for healthy and productive regrowth, without impacting the natural habitat the sea sponge colonies are harvested from.
Sea Sponges are a Sustainable and Quickly Renewable Resource
Scientific studies have consistently confirmed that the regular harvesting of natural sponges actually enhances the health and population of the sponges by increasing the population and removing older sponges. Properly harvested, or cut, sponges will re-grow within a few years, producing a bigger and healthier sponge than it was originally. Pieces of sponge that are broken off in the harvesting process that settle back to the ocean floor and reattach to a hard object, can regrow into completely new sponges. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that harvested colonies actually increase in their population density, and through this practice the overall sponge population.