A million-dollar project aimed at promoting new harvesting and business practices will allow a once thriving Bahamian enterprise to captalise on a natural bounty.
Keesha Bethell reports
Sponging in the Bahamas
THE Bahamian sponge industry is believed to have been started by a Frenchman, Gustave Renourd, who was wrecked in the waters of the archipelago in 1841.
He exported sponges to Paris and the trade was further developed by his son-in-law, Edward Brown.
Although payment was not substantial, the advent of the sponge industry opened the door for former slaves and liberated Africans following the abolition of slavery in 1838 to have more access to money.
A Blue Book of Statistics dating back to 1843 shows that 132 bales of sponge were exported. While at the London Fisheries Exhibition in 1883, Commissioner for the Bahamas A J Adderley reported that the Bahamas had a “brilliant assemblage of the ocean’s treasures that represent the fishing industries of the Bahama Islands”. He referred to sponge as “by far the most important marine product of the Bahama Islands”.
By the late 1850s, Bahamian sponges were comparable to the best from the Mediterranean and plentiful enough to demand a new mass market.
During that period, the average annual report reflected exports of 250,000 pounds from the Great Bahama Bank, nicknamed ‘The Mud’ in Andros.
Soon the sponging industry expanded to the shallows south west of Eleuthera and Acklins Bight, causing exports to rise to 625,000 pounds a year by 1870 and one million pounds by 1900, worth £100,000.
At its height, the sponge fleet consisted of some 600 vessels.
The peak of the sponge industry came in 1917 with 1,010,239 pounds exported at a value of $400,578. According to records of the estimated world production of sponges in 1935, the Bahamas was ranked third largest.
However, three hurricanes in 1926 diminished the production of sponges. Another issue was the overfishing of the beds and the practice of hooking juvenile sponges. Those factors led to the introduction of the Agricultural and Marine Products Board Sponge Amendment Rules in 1937, which monitored fishing of under-developed sponge and introduced a closed season.
In late 1938, a fungus obliterated 99 per cent of the prized sponge beds and the industry collapsed, putting thousands of Bahamians out of work. The sponge industry was resurrected in the 1950s, although the export numbers were less compared to the industry’s heyday.
According to more recent figures, in 2011, the value of sponges exported from the Bahamas was $540,000 (61,500 pounds), a decline from the 2006 peak, when sponge exports totalled $1.065 million (111,500 pounds).
Last month, the Inter-American Bank (IDB) launched a $1.118 million project geared toward revitalising the once prized Bahamian sponging industry with a specific aim to boost the local economy and decrease unemployment numbers, particularly on the island of Andros.
It was a move that Lynward Saunders, one of two presidents of the Bahamas Commercial Sponge Association (BCSA), hopes will resurrect the industry that once served as a driving force behind the Androsian economy.
“It would help boost the economy a little more in terms of dollar value,” said Mr Saunders, who lives in Mangrove Cay. “From the Association part of it, I think it’s a good thing and I think it is good to educate people how to do it (sponging) because the sustainability is important and learning about value added is important. So the project is a good thing.”
According to an IDB project memorandum reported by Tribune Business in February, 2016, the BCSA, which acts as the industry’s representative body, will be given resources “to purchase and install processing equipment” in the Androsian settlements of Mangrove Cay and Red Bays. The BCSA was formed about a year and a half ago, according to Mr Saunders. His BCSA co-president lives in Red Bays, North Andros.
Meetings with the IDB regarding the revitalisation project began around the time of the BCSA’s establishment. “About that time, we were discussing how we [were] going to increase our membership fee to get everyone onboard,” Mr Saunders told The Tribune. “The IDB has implemented some things … they are going to have to educate the sponge fishermen or persons who want to get involved in the industry like the marketing and exporting and what have you. So the relationship has been there from the beginning and I think it’s a positive thing.
“I think it’s a lot of growth if we continue in that regard. Once the sponge fishermen understand where they want to carry their industry, then most of it relies heavily on the sponge fishermen to drive it to where they want to carry it. The IDB, they are just giving us the tools. There were three launches in the early part of February. It was one in Nassau, one in Mangrove Cay and one in Red Bays.
“The launch was a positive thing for it. It showed that they are actually going to go through with it. The IDB is about to bring over the consultants to start the programme of educating and some other things.”
The IDB memorandum also pointed out that Bahamian spongers were “not capturing the full value of their product” due to a fragmented and disorganised supply chain, plus the absence of processing and marketing functions to enable them to “access higher-value markets”.
“In the existing supply chain model, spongers harvest sponges and sell them at a low price to a consolidator/export business that processes them and sells them at a much higher price,” the IDB memorandum said. “Since the spongers are neither involved in processing nor are linked to a final customer buyer, they do not benefit from the higher end-price of the sponges ... These value chain issues are the second problem facing the industry.”
The million-dollar project is designed to benefit 660 people on Andros - an island where more than half the households live on under $20,000 per year.
The memorandum revealed that Bahamian spongers will be directed towards more sustainable harvesting practices, a move that will benefit 1.4 million hectares of sea floor. According to the memorandum, 200 to 250 Andros-based sponge fishermen will adopt new harvesting and business practices if the project hits its objectives.
And, in opening new export markets for their products, the IDB is hoping that sales to foreign countries and domestically will reach $200,000 and $175,000 respectively when the three-year project is completed.
“Nature provides income and employment for 80 per cent of the inhabitants of Andros,” the IDB memorandum said. “Approximately 1,645 full time jobs and 8,000 part-time jobs rely on the island’s natural capital. Environmental degradation in the Caribbean means that available natural resources on Andros are likely to become more valuable, if they are properly protected.”
Describing sponges as “a key form of natural capital in the Bahamas”, the IDB memorandum added that they were “an important source of income for low-income populations who harvest and sell them”.
“The project expects to have 200 direct beneficiaries who are spongers in Andros, and 440 indirect beneficiaries, who are the spongers’ families,” the IDB sai”d. The island of Andros has approximately 7,500 inhabitants, and the average household size is 3.2. Approximately 53 per cent of households have an income of less than US$20,000 per year.
“Sponging is a physically demanding activity and, according to the BCSA, approximately 10 per cent of full-time spongers in Andros are women. It is expected that women could participate in processing the sponges when merchandised sponge processing occurs lower in the value chain,” the bank added.
Since the project aims to give spongers more access to the final buyer, it means the revitalisation project could pose a threat to sponge exporters like Tsakkos “Peter” Pantelis, a Greek whose family business in sponge export in Nassau dates back to the 1960s. His grandfather, with whom he shares the same name, turned to sponging a few years after moving to the Bahamas from Greece in the 1950s.
When Mr Pantelis took over 22 years ago, he moved the business from West Bay Street. Today, the family company, Bahamas Sponge Exporters, sits at 17, Deans Lane in a quaint yellow building with white trimming. According to Mr Pantelis, over the past decade while sponge production has been consistent, the demand has been low due to a number of factors, including competition from Cuba and synthetic sponges.
Mr Pantelis does not go sponging but purchases his product from Androsian spongers once he receives word that there is available merchandise. He then flies to Andros and selects the sponges he wants, before making payment. The sponges are shipped to Nassau within three days and brought to Deans Lane, where it is grated and clipped before being sorted according to size, quality and type. The sponges are then laid out to dry in the sun in the back yard before being packaged for export.
Wool, Hardhead and Grass are the types of sponges Mr Pantelis purchases, Grass being the most popular.
He admitted that his primary market includes European countries like Greece and France. “I don’t remember having Bahamian clients ever,” he says. “There has never been an interest for it here in the Bahamas”. Aside from that, he says more profit is made through selling sponges in bulk internationally.
The frequency of his travel to Andros depends on a number of factors. “When Hurricane Matthew came, the fishermen could not go out for more than one month,” he said. “It also depends on what the fishermen are interested in going after. There are some fishermen who only fish for sponge. At other times, fishermen who normally fish for lobster, turn to sponging during off season.”
Mr Saunders is the proprietor of Andros Island Sea Sponge, a Bahamian-owned company. The company takes pride in providing “sustainably harvested fine Bahamian sea sponge”. Additionally, the company works closely with local sponge fishermen, operates its own boats and exports sponge worldwide. “Andros Island Sea Sponge is my company,” Mr Saunders says proudly. “I jumped on board with the IDB to help with [this] project.” He currently exports to Greece, the United States, Italy and Canada. Expansion to Turkey, India and China is anticipated.
Although BCSA members in Mangrove Cay number about 15, Saunders says interest is growing. “The association [is] going to try to help the locals to add value to their sponge and educate them on the same,” he said. “Sustainability, too, is important to the sponging industry. So it will help them in that area, too, in educating them how to harvest their sponge properly and how to add value to them after they bring them to the boat or if they want to go further into packaging and marketing, how to add value to that area.
“Packaging, labouring, exporting - all of those would be helpful to the sponge men providing if they want to go into that area and it doesn’t have to be a sponge fisherman to go into that part of the sponging industry because some sponge fishermen are only interested in harvesting and selling them as raw material. But there are other business venture persons who want to get into the marketing and exporting as I do.”
The IDB document also indicated plans to increase the sales price of sponge to bring more profit to sponge fishermen. It read, “It is expected that through the project, spongers who work with the Bahamas Commercial Sponge Association will increase their sales price from $.60 to $1 per sponge, an increase of 40 per cent.”
But according to Mr Saunders, spongers can make nice profits now, even without the increase.
“Well I understand that,” he said. “But they are probably getting more than that now if you really calculate it in terms of how they handle their product and how they add value to them. For example, if they (spongers) cut their sponge and they bring it to market, that means the sponge would [be] valued a little more than if they just hook it from the bottom because it leaves the root to the seabed and it doesn’t cause the merchant to work as hard.
“So it would cause the merchant to work less and that would make it more valuable because the merchant doesn’t have to pay someone to do that. So it’s a learning process and they can make more if they follow those guidelines.”
In addition to explaining the importance of harvesting, the BCSA president gave a breakdown of sponge pricing.
“With the Grass Sponge, from $0.65 to maybe depending on the quality of the sponge, it could go up to $0.90, maybe a $1. For the Hardhead, it is a very small sponge. It could go from $0.25 to maybe $0.75 depending on the size. The Wool … that can go from $0.75 to, maybe depending on the size and the quality, $5 to $8.
“And you have Yellow and Reef sponges. Reef sponges are very low grade; they are very soft sponges. The Yellow is more in the middle [in terms of value]. We don’t get many of the Yellow. So, technically speaking, them raising the sponge price from $0.60 to $1 wouldn’t make that much of a difference.”
He added that spongers can make a hefty profit if they use the right practices and go to sea every day. “If they are really the serious ones - when I say the serious ones, those are the ones that sponge every day - they could make up to about $3,000 to $5,000 a month,” he says. “If they really go out there and work.
“But it’s [also] according to expenses. You have to look at all that. They have expenses like gas expenses and what have you. And it depends on who they sell to because some people pay more than others.”
Mr Saunders remains optimistic about the project and what it has to offer spongers once a major challenge is overcome and new methods are embraced.
“The challenges would probably be to change the way they are doing business in sponging,” he says. “The sponge fishermen, they are used to this old way of sponging [which] has gone down the generations for at least over 100 years. They have done it the same way, the same way. In terms of new technology, because there are some things you may have to do differently in order for it to be more feasible as time goes on and the challenge is that I hope that the sponge fishermen change in that area and in that direction.”
There are currently 75 spongers in Mangrove Cay, two or three of whom are women, but only 15 have sided with the BCSA thus far, although interest is growing every day, according to Mr Saunders.
“The majority of them depend on the sponges because the sponge doesn’t have seasons, but the other (fishing) industries, they are seasonal,” he says. “So they rely basically on the sponging industry to keep them going.”
He believes that it is an adjustment that will catch on with time. Although the IDB’s revitalisation project is expected to span three years, he believes more time may be required for spongers to really benefit.
“I think it could work,” he said. “Three years time, I think we need more time depending again on where the sponge men want to carry the organisation or the industry. “It would need more time. I think the three years is a good time for training and, once that happens, you might see companies come into the industry to do processing and do other export [to] those gift stores all over the world.”
Presently, Mr Saunders says sponging in the Bahamas is concentrated on Andros on the settlements of Mangrove Cay and Red Bays. “Ninety-nine per cent (of sponges) come from Andros, particularly Mangrove Cay and Red Bays. More so in Mangrove Cay,” the BCSA president said.
Eventually, he hopes the revitalisation of sponging will expand throughout the country.
“There are sponges all over the Bahamas,” he said, “from Acklins to Grand Bahama. The whole chain of the Bahamas has sponges so it’s a lot of areas in Bimini, Abaco, Eleuthera, Long Cay and Acklins. So there are sponging abundance in those areas.”