Wiping Out the Spongers

A new crackdown on Biscayne Bay's sponge poachers has netted an entire Cuban subculture

Florida Marine Patrol Ofcr. Jason Lundy recognized the sponge poachers from a distance as he motored outside the northern boundaries of Biscayne National Park. He knew their boat well, and the glint of vegetable oil on water indicated they were likely breaking the law.

The poachers often spread an oil slick to flatten the sea and increase visibility of the sponges. Small doses of vegetable oil mixed with water probably do little damage to Biscayne Bay. Not so the uncontrolled sponge fishing that follows. Scientists believe the poaching sabotages the bay's water quality and harms the ecosystem. For this reason in 1992 the state and federal governments outlawed all sponging in South Florida's national parks. Since then sponges have joined a list of animals, including lobster, queen conch, turtles, tropical fish, and even butterflies, ostensibly protected by law but plundered nonetheless.

The oil is just one of many tricks employed by poachers. They have an arsenal of tactics to evade the authorities. Their cat-and-mouse game is even older than the national parks themselves. In 1905 poachers murdered a game warden named Guy Bradley, hired by the Audubon Society to protect egrets and other waterfowl in what years later would become Everglades National Park. Yet with the spongers, there is an additional element to this old tale: a clash of cultures.

During 70 years at work, Francisco "Pancho" Diaz has seen all aspects of the sponge trade
courtesy Francisco Diaz
During 70 years at work, Francisco "Pancho" Diaz has seen all aspects of the sponge trade

Lundy gunned the twin 225-horsepower engines of his 25-foot Mako and headed south. The 27-year-old Lundy grew up traveling the waterways of South Florida. His father operates an airboat concession in the Everglades. The sun had scarcely been up an hour when the marine officer's speedboat crossed an invisible line in the flat expanse of Biscayne Bay.

As Lundy approached the poachers on the morning of December 8, 1999, a pursuit that had lasted more than three years was nearing its end. When federal officials outlawed sponging in the park, they curtailed the livelihood of about 40 sponge fishermen who were forced to move their operations to areas with fewer and poorer-quality sponges. In the process authorities dealt a near fatal blow to an industry powered largely by Cuban exiles, who had sponged for generations in their native land. Despite the ban some immigrant fishermen simply refused to quit.

The marine patrol officer put on his flashing blue siren as he neared the 36-foot commercial fishing boat. During long hours of surveillance, park rangers had dubbed this main boat the "mother ship."

Tethered to the mother ship were two single-man skiffs. Each man in his boat feverishly grabbed sponges. The men had long poles that ended in four prongs. In one fluid motion they would rip a sponge from the bottom and dump it into the boat. In the process they broke numerous state and federal laws. Rangers had once watched a group of poachers, including these two men, whose names are Inocente Caldentey and Alberto Garcia, nab 217 sponges in less than an hour. The men moved so fast the officers could barely count them. (They got an exact number when a Coast Guard cutter stopped the spongers outside the park.)

A top-quality seven-to-eight-inch sponge of the right species retails for $15. Those lower in quality fetch $12 for the same size. If everything went reasonably well, Caldentey and Garcia could pry more than $1000 worth of sponges from the bay bottom. After paying off the owner of the boat, cutting the sponges, and haggling over the sale price with a wholesaler, they might have a couple of hundred dollars left.

Rangers acknowledge fishermen don't become millionaires from the practice. "These guys are just trying to survive," observes Biscayne National Park ranger David Pharo.

Through tricks and subterfuge, the poachers had managed to escape capture. Still, they might have wondered if their run of luck was drawing to a close.

Eighty-four-year-old Francisco "Pancho" Diaz sits in an air-conditioned trailer at the Miami Stone Crab and Lobster Company on the Miami River. Down the block and across the street is a waterfront dive known as the Flagler Market that's frequented by Garcia and Caldentey. A hundred yards further is the place where the two men dock their boats. The lobster company itself doubled as a sponge warehouse until the park ban convinced them to cut back on the trade.

Diaz is a link to the past. Small in stature, his eyes shine as he tells his story. He is happy to recount a history that quickly is fading from memory. Diaz has seen the demise of two sponge fisheries, first in Cuba and then in Miami. He began work in the trade as a cook on a sponge boat in Cuba when he was just fourteen years old. As a young man, he lived in Surgidero de Batabano, a port town that served as the center of the Cuban sponge industry. At its height in the Thirties and Forties, as many as 240 boats would leave the port to harvest sponges.

The spry octogenarian seems to shed his years as he narrates the history of the trade. Diaz says sponging in the Caribbean began with Greek immigrants who had fished for the creatures in the Mediterranean. He points out deep-water sponging in Tarpon Springs, the only other active fishery in Florida, is dominated by Greek families. To hear Diaz tell it, the same was true in Cuba, with much of the industry controlled by a Greek sponge tycoon named Juan Esfakis. When Diaz started in the business he believes Esfakis must have been in his seventies. At the height of the Greek man's power in the Forties, he owned eight sponge warehouses and employed 300 men for the difficult job of trimming the sponges

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