The Florida sponge industry.
By William B. Burk.
Sponge is a substance with which almost everyone is familiar, as there are but few living in civilized communities who do not find occasion to use it for a great variety of purposes. The article is so very useful that a large number of inconveniences would arise if it could not be obtained. Without it, what would the surgeon, the traveller or the housekeeper do? And yet, most of those who use sponges in an infinite variety of ways all their lives, never stop to consider how they are formed; that is, whether they are plants or animals, or what their history or habits may have been.
Sponges consist of a framework or skeleton, coated with gelatinous matter and forming a non-irritable mass, which is connected internally with canals of various sizes. The ova are very numerous, and present in appearance the form of irregular shaped granules derived from the gelatinous matter which grow into ciliated germs, and falling at maturity into small canals, are then expelled through the orifices. When alive, the body is covered by a gelatinous film, which, being provided with cilia, causes a current of water to pass in at the smaller pores and out at the larger apertures, the sponge probably assimilating the nutritive principles contained in the water.
Sponges are found abundantly in tropical waters, generally. They gradually decrease in numbers towards the colder latitudes, till they become entirely extinct. They vary much in shape. Some are shaped like a vase, others are semi-cylindrical, others flat like an open fan, and some are round.
The commerce in sponges is of considerable importance. The great difficulty which is experienced in any attempt to distinguish species, results from the extreme susceptibility of all keratose sponges to any change in external conditions. They appear to require, for the production of the forms in abundance, tropical or sub-tropical seas, and attain by far their greatest development in the number of the forms and species in the Gulf of Mexico and West Indian seas. The typical forms, the commercial sponges, are essentially confined to the waters of the Bahaman Archipelago, and the southern and western coasts of Florida in the Western Hemisphere, and to the Mediterranean and Red Seas in the other.
The Florida sponge grounds form three separate and elongated stretches along the southern and western coasts of the State. The first includes nearly all of the Florida reefs, the second extends from Anclote Keys to Cedar Keys, and the third from just north of Cedar Keys to Saint Mark's. The Florida grounds have a linear extent of about 120 miles, beginning at Key Biscayne, in the northeast, and ending in the south at northwest channel, just west of Key West. The northwestern half of the grounds is very narrow, having an average width of only about five miles, and being limited to the outer side of the reefs. At about the Matacumbo Reefs the grounds broaden out so as to cover the entire width of the reefs, which are much broader here than at the north. The entire southern half of the grounds has more or less of the same breadth, which is about 13 or 14 miles. The second sponging ground begins just south of Anclote Keys, with a breadth of 7 or 8 miles, which it maintains from a point opposite Bat Fort to Sea Horse Reef, just south of Cedar Keys. The total length of this sponging ground is about 60 geographical miles. Its distance from the shore varies somewhat. At the south the inner edge approaches within 4 or 5 miles of the main land, and comes close upon Anclote Keys; but throughout the remainder of its extent it is distant 6 to 8 miles from the shore until it touches the shallow bottom and reefs of Cedar Keys. The depth of water on these grounds, as indicated on the coast survey charts, ranges from 3 to 6 fathoms, but many portions are undoubtedly shallower than this. The northern ground, which maintains a nearly uniform width throughout, is about 70 miles long by about 15 miles broad. It approaches to within about 5 miles of the shore and terminates just off the mouth of Saint Mark's River; the depth of the water is the same as upon the next one to the south, i. e., from 3 to 6 fathoms. The total area of the Florida sponging grounds, which are now being worked, including also those that were formerly fished upon but have since been more or less abandoned, may be roughly stated at about 3,000 square geographical miles. This probably does not include all of the sponging grounds occurring in Florida waters, for the fact that new areas are being constantly discovered would indicate that there might still be more to find, and it is certain that no strenuous efforts have yet been made to extend the grounds already known, the discovery of new ones having generally been made by accident.
The sponge fishery of the Florida coast differs from that of the Mediterranean, in that sponges are not obtained by divers, but by means of a long hook fastened to the end of a long pole, and managed from a small boat. In Florida, small vessels, of from 5 to 50 tons measurement, are employed to visit the grounds to afford quarters for the men, and to bring home the catch. These vessels are generally of light draught and schooner rigged, having proportionately large decks on which to carry boats, working gear and the sponges caught. The holds are of considerable size for storing the sponges, and the cabins generally small, indicating a sacrifice of comfort to working room. Each vessel carries, according to its size, from five to fifteen men, one as cook and the remainder as fishermen, and also a small yawl boat to every two fishermen, to be used by them in securing the sponges. In addition to the working tools for taking sponges, they are provided with a sufficient quantity of provisions, wood and water for the trip, lasting from four to ten weeks.
The working outfit for a Florida sponging vessel consists of a few small yawl boats, called dingies, and a supply of sponge hooks and sponge glasses. The boats used are always made as light as possible. They are from 15 to 20 feet long, and from 4 to 6 feet wide. The idea is to have the boats light enough to enable two men to haul them in and out over the side of the vessel, and yet strong enough to withstand the rough handling, which they are sometimes subjected to, and to carry the heavy loads resulting from a day's catch. While catching sponges it is necessary to scull the small yawl boats (dingies) from the stern, and, for convenience in doing so, this form of sculling notch is used: A piece of oak plank, about 6 inches wide and 1 foot long, is notched at one end to fit the oar and inserted at the other between two guiding strips well fastened to the stern sheet. This sculling notch is placed at one side of the centre of the stern sheet, and is made to be easily removable in order that it may be taken out of the way when not needed. The sponge hooks are made of iron, with three curved prongs, measuring about 5 to 6 inches in width. The entire length of a hook is about 8 inches, the upper end being made into a very strong socket for the insertion of the pole.
The sponge glass is made from an ordinary wooden bucket, the wooden bottom being replaced by one of ordinary window glass, securely fastened by cement. In using a sponge glass it is placed upright on the surface of the water, the handle of the bucket is placed on the back of the neck of the fisherman with his head thrust down in the bucket. In this way the fisherman can distinctly see very small objects in very deep water, and he can easily distinguish good sponges from those of an inferior grade.
When the sponger discovers a suitable sponge, through the aid of the sponge glass, he hurriedly grasps his hook, and, plunging it directly upon the sponge, he skilfully pulls it from its habitation and brings it up to the surface and places it in the boat. As soon as the fisherman collects a sufficient quantity, he takes them to the vessel, where they are spread carefully on the deck in their natural upright position, so as to allow the slimy matter, called "Gurry," by the sponger, to run off. During the first stages of decomposition they have a very unpleasant odor, something like decayed fishy matter. After the dingies collect sufficient sponges to make a vessel load, they are taken to what are called sponge crawls, which is an enclosure of about 10 to 12 feet, made generally by placing stakes in the beach where the water is from 2 to 3 feet deep.
Sponges, after being kept on the decks of the vessel from one to two days, will generally be sufficiently cured to be taken to the crawls, and then they are kept there for a few days and then thoroughly washed and pounded with a flat stick. They are then placed upon strings of about 6 feet in length and taken to the markets, where they are sold at auction. They are generally sold in lots, and then carefully trimmed and packed in bales weighing from 15 to 100 pounds each, according to quality, the cheaper grades being generally packed in the larger bales.
The principal varieties of sponges found in Florida are the following: Sheep-wool, yellow and grass. The Florida sheep-wool are the best quality, being of very fine texture, soft and very strong and durable. The yellow sponge is of fine quality, but not strong in texture, and not near as soft or durable as the sheep-wool sponges. The grass is very much inferior to the others, not being as strong nor so desirable in shape, and being easily torn.
There are no sponges found in the world to equal the Florida sheep-wool for softness and strength, and no better bath sponge can be found than a good, solid Florida sheep-wool, although they are generally sold for washing carriages, etc. In former years Florida sponges were loaded with lime or sand in order to decrease the price, but of late very few loaded sponges have been placed upon the market.
Sponges in great variety are also found in many places in the West India Islands, also in Cuba. The Cuban sponges are the next best to the Florida. The principal varieties found in Cuba or the West Indies are sheep-wool, reef, yellow and grass, also velvet, which are next best to the sheep- wool.
The finer grades of sponges are found principally in the Mediterranean, such as the fine surgeon's, toilet, bathing and nursery sponges, and they are very much higher in price than any others. Florida produces nearly double the amount of sponges that are imported from all other countries; that is, in value, not quantity, and the demand for good Florida sponges is considerable greater than the supply. Consequently, the prices must advance from year to year. The prices have more than doubled, within the last twenty years, for Florida sponges.
The fine, soft species of sponges, such as surgeon's, toilet, nursery, bath, etc., are found in great variety in the Mediterranean, and are fished principally by divers, sometimes at great depth. After being brought to the land they are buried in the sand and allowed to decompose, after which they are well washed and beaten with a small stick, and then, packed in bags and sent direct to London, and again thoroughly cleaned and packed in cases according to size and quality. The large London dealers have almost complete control of the sponges found in the Mediterranean. There are a great many varieties found there, principally the fine surgeon's, toilet, bathings potter's, fine thin flat, (called elephant's ears by the native fishermen), fine cups, Zimocca toilet, Zimocca potter's, etc. Some of the finest cup sponges are sold at as high as $100 per dozen. The Mandruka bath sponges are also very expensive and very rare. Some of the cheaper species are also found in the same waters, but none like those found in Florida or Cuban waters.