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Spongers Soak Up Profit Again : Economics: A so-called red tide partially devastated Florida sponge beds in the mid-1940s. Now a blight off the Greek Isles is helping the U.S. industry bounce back.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the first part of this century, natural sponges were as common in American homes as bars of soap or glass bottles of milk. They were used for bathing and for general cleaning chores--and virtually all of them came from Tarpon Springs.

But in the mid-1940s, the industry went belly up. A so-called red tide devastated Florida’s sponge beds, and synthetic sponges were introduced to replace the natural ones.

But now, thanks to natural sponges’ continuing popularity in Europe and to a mysterious blight that destroyed sponges off the Greek Isles starting in early 1988, the Florida sponge industry has a new lease on life, and this Gulf Coast town has become the natural sponge capital of the world.

Sponging was a major Florida industry for 50 years from the 1890s to the 1940s, and Tarpon Springs was at the center of it with a fleet of 200 to 250 sponge boats carrying crews totaling 2,500 men. Another 1,000 workers were employed in 50 sponge-processing plants and warehouses here.

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Several hundred spongers had migrated to Tarpon Springs from Greece at the turn of the century to operate sponge boats and to buy, process and sell the sea creatures. Harvesting sponges had been a leading enterprise of Greeks in the Mediterranean Sea for 3,000 years, with the sponges being used, among other things, as padding for armor.

The sponge beds recovered from the red tide along the Florida coast during the 1950s and 1960s, but by then Americans were accustomed to less-expensive synthetic sponges. A few boats continued to harvest sponges, primarily for the painting industry, but there was little demand.

Then came the failure of the sponge beds in the Mediterranean, and European sponge merchants descended on Tarpon Springs and other Western Hemisphere sponging centers--Key West, the Bahamas, Cuba, for example--in 1988 to help fill the gap.

“We went from a two-boat sponge fleet to more than 60 boats summer before last,” recalled George Billiris, 63, a sixth-generation sponger and owner of a sponge-processing firm. “Boats sailed here from California, Louisiana and Texas to make a killing on sponges, as prices soared from $5 to $30 a sponge. Local fishing and pleasure boats were converted to sponge boats.”

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Charles Phillips, 49, executive director of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, said: “What had been a $100,000 annual industry for Tarpon Springs in recent years skyrocketed to more than $5 million in 1988.” But last year, he added, “prices leveled off, the industry stabilized--with many of the boats leaving the area--and sales amounted to $3 million.”

During the height of the sponging season last year from April to November, 20 boats were involved in the trade here. A similar number is expected this year.

The boats harvest the sponges within a 100-mile range of Tarpon Springs. Divers walk the bottom of the sea at 10- to 60-foot depths, with air supplied through a hose attached to a compressor on the sponge boat. Using three-foot-long forks to pluck the sponges off the floor of the sea, they stay underwater three to four hours on each dive.

“We have been shipping 85% of our sponges to Europe since the blight hit the Mediterranean,” said Michael Giallourakis, 51, president of an 80-year-old sponge company founded by his grandfather, a Greek immigrant. “Natural sponges have a 10 to 1 sudsing ability over synthetic sponges. That’s why Europeans prefer them over the cheaper substitutes.”

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He added that sponges are belatedly enjoying a rebirth of popularity in the United States, partly because of environmental concerns. “Sponges are a renewable natural resource, 100% biodegradable,” he said. “Processing produces no pollution.”

But Billiris said: “Synthetic sponges are a necessary evil. No way . . . are spongers able to produce the numbers made synthetically. And, no way could we ever compete price-wise. But this big spurt due to the Mediterranean blight is a delight for the few of us in what is now considered an exotic business.”


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