Bounty from the Bahamian seas; Return of the sponge

There was a time when mountains of honey-colored sponges filled warehouses here and the schooners and sloops that fished for them crowded the Nassau waterfront.

But the sponge industry collapsed in 1938, throwing thousands of Bahamians out of work.

Almost nobody imagined it would recover. Astoundingly, it has.

In an old sponge warehouse here on West Bay Street, two young Bahamian girls, sheep shears in their hands, are silently snipping and trimming their way through a pile of sponges: Roots and discolored portions have to be removed, along with fragments of coral. Then there's a little shaping to do.

Their employer, Greek sponge exporter Pantelis Tsakkos, looks on. Since 1977 , when the industry recovered some of its old vigor, he has been shipping sponges to Europe and North Americ. Europeans, especially the French, Belgians, and West Germans, are snapping them up these days, he says. "They like the good quality."

Mr. Tsakkos is the only sponge dealer in Nassau, and business, according to him, is "not too bad." Mr. Tsakkos buys about 7,000 sponges each week from the numerous sponge fishermen now operating in the Bahamas. "All the islands have good sponges," he says. "But Andros has the best." He flies frequently to the island and to others, such as Great Exuma, to inspect catches. He can sell 1, 000 good-quality sponges for $5,000.

The girls snip on with their shears. They appear to like the job. It is quiet and cool. And they can sit down. Observes Sharon Swabey: "My great-great-grandmother used to work here, in the same building. She used to clip and pack the sponges."

Sponges in their natural state are by no means as attractive as they are in Galeries Lafayette or El Corte Ingles. Beneath the sea, sponges are covered with a black, gelatinous substance that has to be removed before they can be sold. Once thought to be plants, sponges are actually animals. Indeed, it is the sponge's elastic and absorbent skeleton that has proved to be of such usefulness to man.

The Bahamian sponge industry appears to have been started by a Frenchman, Gustave Renouard, who was shipwrecked in the Bahamas in 1841 and who began dispatching sponges to Paris as soon as he had recovered from the ordeal. Two years later, the sun-scorched scattering of British islands exported 132 bales of the increasingly popular bath item to London stores.

Sponges were chiefly to be had on "The Mud," the name given to the Great Bahama Bank, a shallow shoal 140 miles long and up to 40 miles wide on the west coast of Andros. But they were also to be found on the Little Bahama Bank, Bimini Bank, and in Exuma Sound and Acklins Bight.

In the heyday of the Bahamian sponge industry at the turn of the century, the sponge fleet consisted of some 600 vessels. Each one carried up to five dinghies, used for harvesting the sponges. Using 10- to 12-foot poles tipped with iron hooks, men in the dinghies pried sponges from the sea floor. A water glass, rather like a bucket with a glass bottom, was used to locate and inspect the sponges. Sometimes fishermen plunged overboard to wrest them from the sea floor; it was illegal to fish for them by dredging or with diving equipment. When the two men in a dinghy had filled it, they took the sponges back to the ship, where they were spread out on deck to dry in the sun. The gelatinous substance soon began to wither -- and to stink.

The fishermen then made for the shore, where they built an enclosed pen of sticks in shallow water called a "kraal," in which they deposited the sponges for a few days to be washed by the ebb and flow of the tide. To speed the removal of the decaying outer layer, the fishermen pounded the sponges with sticks. They then scraped off any remaining coral, sand, or rock with knives, taking great care not to slash the sponge.

The sponges were then shipped to the Nassau Sponge Exchange where they were sold by sealed bids. Buyers were invariably Nassau merchants and Greeks representing foreign business houses. There were thousands of sponges to buy: A single vessel might return with between 5,000 and 15,000 after one voyage.

When they had been cleaned and trimmed in the warehouse, the sponges were taken to the packing yard, where they were laid out to dry in the sun and sorted by quality. They were then squeezed into burlap bales with the aid of a press, and exported. Close to 1,000 can be squeezed into a single bale.

Far from making a good living hooking sponges, the Bahamian sponge fisherman lived in virtual poverty. Instead of wages, he got a share of the profits, and was practically forced to borrow against them in advance, setting up a vicious circle he could never break out of.

Occasionally, large sponges were landed at Nassau. In 1910, what may still be the world's largest was landed. The New York Times reported that "it is what is known as a wool sponge, which is the finest quality known among spongers. It is in form perfectly round, arched like an immense fruit cake, and is six feet in circumference, and two feet in diameter in every direction."

World War I effectively curtailed the Mediterranean sponge industry. By contrast, Bahamian sponging flourished during the hostilities; 1917 was the best year for the industry. About 27 percent of all sponges harvested in the world came from Bahamian waters that year.

Bad weather was a constant threat to the sponge fishermen, and the 1899 hurricane proved particularly devastating. In 1926, three hurricanes delivered a body blow to the industry, ripping sponges from the shallow shoals. Then overfishing began to take its toll. In 1937, a closed season on sponge fishing was imposed, and harvesting of sponges under a certain size was forbidden.

But the next year was the devastating one. In November and December 1938, a microscopic fungus disease attacked the Bahamian sponge beds, wiping out 99 percent of sponges. Sponging had been the backbone of the Bahamian economy for 75 years, so thousands were thrown out of work.

In 1940, the Bahamas exported only 70,848 pounds of sponges valued at $41,958 . In the peak year of the industry -- 1917 -- the colony exported 164,000 pounds of sponges valued at $492,000. The advent of the synthetic sponge didn't help matters, either.

Exactly when sponges began to return to Bahamian waters is not known for certain. But in the past few years there have been enough of them to harvest commercially. The fungus, which only affected sponges, seems to have disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.

Although there are approximately 5,000 known species of sponge in the world, only five of commercial value exist in the Bahamas: hardhead, grass, wool, reef, and yellow.

"Some sponges no come back never," says Mr. Tsakkos in his broken English. "Velvet I never see. It die for good."

There is no sponge fleet at Nassau today. Independent captains fish for sponges now. But they still use the water glass, hooks, and dinghies. Skin divers also retrieve them, Mr. Tsakkos says. They don't wear masks, he adds, explaining that the black sponges are easy to see underwater. Mr. Tsakkos, whose father worked in the sponge business in Libya and on the Aegean island of Kalymnos (when it was Italian), explains that most sponges come from the Bahamas these days. "There are not so many from Greece and none from Libya," he says.

In the mid-1920s, when the sponge industry seemed as permanent as the white sands and sapphire seas here, Bahamians sang a song, "Sponger Money Never Done." They didn't sing it when the industry collapsed.

But they just might begin singing it now.

Or, at least, they might start trying to remember the words.

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