Edited by David J. Starkey, Poul Holm and Michaela Barnard. Book available on: http://shop.earthscan.co.uk/ProductDetails/mcs/productID/821
Violent confrontations on the waterfront and arson attacks were an unsavory feature of the intense hunt for sponges on Florida’s fragile coral reef in 1918. But the real victims were the sponges themselves. Human harvesters not only depleted the sponge banks, but also precipitated the spread of disease which ultimately proved fatal to this once-rich marine resource. This is just one example of eleven stories presented in Oceans Past, written by a multi-disciplinary team of experts, that provide an historical view of ocean resources that can help foreshadow the future.
The newly published book from Earthscan presents studies of long-term interaction between human societies and the marine environment. The chapters were originally presented as papers to an international conference – Oceans Past: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the History of Marine Animal Populations. Contributions came from researchers based in Russia, Canada, Australia, Denmark, UK and the U.S. This pioneering book demonstrates how an understanding of the past can explain the current state of the seas and inform the management of ocean resources in the future.
The history of the sponge fishermen and their valuable but vulnerable prey is reconstructed by Loren McClenachen. This insightful analysis is a story of change in both the human and ecological environments. It is a poignant example of how long-term environmental stress caused by over-fishing lowers biological and commercial productivity, increases the likelihood of punctuated disease events, and takes a harsh toll on people who make their living from the sea.
“Sponger money ever flow”
Social Conflict, Over-Fishing and Disease in the Florida Sponge Fishery, 1849–1939
By Loren McClenachan
Coral reef ecosystems have for centuries been influenced by humans, and the consequences have brought an onslaught of unknown diseases and the destruction of these ecosystems. In the late 19th century, poor coastal fishermen in Florida prospered from the sale of millions of pounds of bath sponges to the North American metropolises of New York, Chicago and St Louis. ‘Sponger money’ was said to ‘ever flow’ and fishing for marine sponges formed the basis of entire local economies along the coast. Until 1905, the banks of marine sponges in the reefs of the Florida Keys were partially protected from overfishing by the mere awkwardness of the fishing gear. Key West spongers used long-handled rakes to grope for sponges in the shallows, leaving deep-water sponges to grow and reproduce.
In the early years of the 20th century, Mediterranean sponge fishermen revolutionized Florida’s sponge fishery by introducing diving technology and shifting the centre of the fishery north to the Gulf Coast. Commercial divers from Greece could take sponges from water depths unimaginable to the Key West spongers, and their ability to access pristine sponge banks and more efficient sponge curing techniques helped them to out-compete traditional fishermen. In 1905, Greek divers began to arrive in Florida in gold rush proportions, and by 1910 they outnumbered the original Key West fishermen.
“The development of diving technology helped fishermen find sponges that were growing in deep water or hidden locations. This advance temporarily breathed life into a dying fishing industry, and ultimately pushed the resource to commercial collapse and ecological extinction.
Technological ratcheting up of fishing pressure is common in marine fisheries even today. In the case of the sponge fishery, the situation became much worse as over-fishing created the breeding ground for diseases which contributed to the start of major ecosystem destruction,” says Loren McClenachan.
Functioning as living water filters, marine sponges do their job better than any other animal in the ocean. They have perfected the art of water filtration; tropical sponges can remove over 90 per cent of the bacteria present in the water and can cycle through up to 20,000 times their own volume in a 24-hour period. However, animals attached to the ocean floor, such as sponges and oysters, are vulnerable because of their immobility and irreplaceable in their ecological role.
At its peak, the fishery in the northern Caribbean removed 47 million pounds (lbs.) of live sponge annually, and over-fishing was evident in both quantitative and qualitative descriptions of the fishery in Florida. Social conflict, intensified by an increasingly overfished resource, characterized the Florida sponge fishery during the early 20th century. Violent confrontations on the waterfront escalated with angry spongers even resorting to arson. In 1918, Key West spongers set fire to a Greek sponging vessel, the first of four craft to ‘be mysteriously destroyed’ in the Keys. A schooner ‘burned to the water’s edge’ in 1923 and Greek spongers were warned in the local newspaper to leave the Keys completely.
As Loren McClenachan explains, “despite efforts on the part of the Key West fishermen to limit the activity of divers, high levels of fishing continued. Over-fishing and scarcity fueled fighting among sponge fishermen, and the same over-fishing contributed to the rapid spread of disease throughout the region. When the first signs of disease appeared in 1938, the sponge population was severely stressed from over-fishing and few reserve populations remained. This disease ultimately reduced the remaining commercial sponge populations by up to 99%.”
In December 1938, the first signs of diseases in the sponges showed up and it spread to epidemic proportions. At the end of 1939, the yellow and vase sponges had suffered, nearly being entirely wiped out, while 70 per cent of the valuable sheepswool sponges had been eliminated from the Keys. Although overflowing fresh water and local pollution were both blamed, the culprit appeared to be a fungus-like filament, which started in a small area of the sponge and expanded until the entire sponge was consumed. By early 1940, the disease had made its way up the coast and Greek divers observed extensive sponge mortality as deep as 70 feet (12m). The remaining sponge fishermen in Florida were out of work by the end of 1940.
During the 1880’s, 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.
‘Sponger Money Never Done’ was sung both in the Bahamas and Key West during the 19th century… Look in my trunk and see what’s there, sponger money, One hundred dollars was my share, sponger money, I’m gonna take away your woes, sponger money, I’m gonna buy you fine new clothes, sponger money. Then when we go out on the street, sponger money.
You’ll be lookin’ nice and neat, sponger money, Then all the boys will envy me, sponger money, Then all the girls will fall for me, sponger money. Money don’t make me you know, sponger money, Sponger money ever flow, sponger money, Tell ev’rybody in town, sponger money, Me and my gal gon’ dance ’em down, sponger money. Sponger money never done, sponger money.
Contact: Loren McClenachan, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, firstname.lastname@example.org,
Phone: 858-405-9512 (cell), 858-822-4170 (office)
Oceans Past: Management Insights from the History of Marine Animal Populations
The chapters that comprise this volume were originally presented as papers to an international conference – Oceans Past: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the History of Marine Animal Populations – held in Kolding, Denmark, in October 2005.
Ranging from fisheries and invasive species to offshore technology and the study of marine environmental history, the eleven studies bring together the perspectives of historians and marine scientists to elucidate how and why marine life in the world’s oceans has changed over time. Highlighting the role that humans have played in this dynamic process, Oceans Past sheds light on the influence that changes in marine ecosystems have had upon the politics, welfare and culture of human societies, thereby providing insights into the management of ocean resources - past, present and future.
“Humans have a profound impact on coastal environments, and a comprehensive understanding of the past state of our oceans is vital for the management of marine resources now and in the future,” says Professor Poul Holm, chair of History of Marine Animal Populations, a project of the Census of Marine Life.
Covering more than 70% of the earth’s surface, for centuries the oceans appeared to offer limitless supplies of food and other resources for humankind. But this has proved to be a false impression, as demonstrated by the extinction of once-abundant species, the depletion of sensitive ecosystems, and episodes such as the extreme exploitation and later collapse of cod populations on the Grand Banks off the coasts of Newfoundland. Yet all too often the lessons from our historical interactions with marine ecosystems are little known, let alone learned.
Oceans Past: Management Insights from the History of Marine Animal Population deploys historical techniques to improve knowledge and offer a holistic understanding of the patterns and processes of change in the marine environment. It demonstrates the value of validated evidence derived from primary sources as varied as archaeological finds, newspaper reports, business advertisements, municipal archives, fishing returns, whaling logbooks, trade journals, personal records, and state departmental memoranda.
“The contributions to this volume range widely over time and space. Their topical scope, moreover, is very broad, with coverage of species ranging from common periwinkle snails to sponges, crustaceans,wildfowl, alewives, cod, whales and human scientists and policy-makers,” says Dr David J Starkey.
Contact: David J Starkey, Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull, UK.
+44 1482 305114; E-mail: email@example.com
Oceans Past: Management Insights from the History of Marine Animal Populations
Foreword: Future Knowledge of Life in Oceans Past by Jesse H. Ausubel
List of Acronyms and Abbreviations
1 Oceans Past: History Meets Marine Science
David J. Starkey, Poul Holm and Michaela Barnard
2 Invasive or Native Species? The Case of the Common Periwinkle Snail (Littorina
littorea) in Northeast North America
April M. H. Blakeslee
3 Social Conflict, Over-Fishing and Disease in the Florida Sponge Fishery, 1849–
4 ‘Quite the Choicest Protein Dish’: The Costs of Consuming Seafood in American
Glenn A. Jones
5 Baiting Our Memories: The Impact of Offshore Technology Change on Inshore
Species Around Cape Cod, 1860–1895
Matthew G. McKenzie
6 Mapping Historic Fishing Grounds in the Gulf of Maine and Northwest Atlantic
7 There She Blew! Yankee Sperm Whaling Grounds, 1760–1920
John L. Bannister, Elizabeth A. Josephson, Randall R. Reeves and Tim D. Smith
8 Depletion within a Decade: The American 19th-Century North Pacific Right
Elizabeth A. Josephson, Tim D. Smith and Randall R. Reeves
9 Sperm Whale Catches and Encounter Rates during the 19th and 20th Centuries:
An Apparent Paradox
Tim D. Smith, Randall R. Reeves, Elizabeth A. Josephson, Judith N. Lund and Hal Whitehead
10 Understanding the Dynamics of Fisheries and Fish Populations: Historical
Approaches from the 19th Century
11 A Political History of Maximum Sustained Yield, 1945–1955
Afterword: Lost and Found in the Past
Paul E. Waggoner
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