Wiping Out the Spongers

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.

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

The hardest part of sponge fishing is cutting the creature. It's an art form, Diaz proudly declares. Like a diamond each sponge must be trimmed differently. A good cutter produces more usable pieces and thus more money. The goal in trimming the sponge is to save as much as possible while eliminating the largest holes and rot. The sponge also must be pared down to a size appropriate for its use. Many of the Cuban sponges were shipped in small sizes to paint companies in Chicago.

"The sponge tells the cutter how to cut it," says Diaz, who left a life on the sea to come ashore where he developed into a cutter renowned for his proficiency and speed. The Cuban sponges used to be sold by weight. In the United States they are acquired by the piece for everything from painting to animal grooming. In this age of synthetic sponges, the natural variety is a high-end product. Natural sponge sellers claim their merchandise lasts longer, and is tougher and more absorbent.

In the old days in Cuba, as many as 21 men would go out on a single boat for as long as a month at a stretch. They would work during the day out of little canoes, manned by two people. One would watch for sponges while the other rowed.

As it is for many Cubans, Francisco Diaz's life is broken into two periods: before Fidel Castro and after. Beginning in 1947 Diaz worked as an administrator for Esfakis. Then when Castro seized power in 1959, the Cuban strongman nationalized the industry and dismantled it.

"Fidel wasn't interested in taking the time that sponges require," Diaz opines.

Instead Castro put the emphasis on modernizing Cuba's lobster industry. He mechanized and consolidated the fishing fleet and only left four to five boats for sponging. Many of those involved in the sponge trade moved to Florida, including Diaz. They carried with them the practices and traditions of their native island.

Then, as today, harvesting sponges is dirty, smelly, time-consuming work. The sponges turn black once outside the water. Inside the sponge is a hard mass full of small animals and coral, which must die, rot, and be removed. The stench from the rotting creatures is overpowering. The fisherman hangs the sponge upside down and leaves it for a day. Then he places it in a tank of fresh water and for the next week it is taken out and beaten every day until it gradually becomes lighter. Some then dump the sponges in acid baths, then in hydrogen peroxide to further clean it. Then it's cut.

For the poachers in Biscayne National Park, the routine was similar. Caldentey and Garcia would spend weeks on their boat. They had a camp on a strip of mangroves on the mainland near a small island outside the park called Chicken Key. It was here that they cured the sponges. While they worked, park ranger David Pharo observed them, dubbing the place "sponger base of operations."

On a clear morning last November, Pharo visited the site to check up on their activities. Near the shore, he spied a bottle tied to a rope, a buoy to mark something. Pharo pulled up the rope and found fish traps. "What appears to the public as garbage is sometimes suspicious to me," he noted.

A decrepit wooden dock jutted off the shore. On its slats a flock of cormorants was roosting. Tied to the structure were two bags of submerged sponges. Each bag held between 60 and 80 sponges. The poachers have left their take to soak. "They have obviously gone to market," Pharo observed.

Pharo cut the engine and poled the rest of the way to the shore, which was thick with mangroves, young Australian pine, and garbage. While walking along the shoreline, he found discarded collecting bags decomposing in the sun. Flies swarmed the remnants of pocked and porous rotting sponges. Hermit crabs scurried out from underfoot. A faded blue wooden skiff, now crumbling, lay upside down. Everywhere there were pieces of carpet the poachers used to cover the sponges while they are in the drying phase. A lookout platform on a tall mangrove faced the sea.

As Lundy bore down on the poachers on the morning of December 8, the immigrant fishermen knew they had trouble. When Caldentey and Garcia saw the marine patrol officer and the blue lights flashing on the Mako, they rapidly secured the skiffs and made hard for the park boundary. Sponging outside the park is legal. Once they crossed the line they might be safe, because it would be impossible to tell where the sponges originated.

Lundy's faster craft quickly intercepted them. Not five weeks before, he had ticketed the two men for sponging. At the time Caldentey had identified himself as Juan Carlos Rodriguez. The alias had worked. Lundy didn't discover the outstanding 1998 warrant against Caldentey for poaching in the park. Caldentey had fled after learning through a story in the Miami Herald of an indictment against him. Escaping arrest, the sponger disappeared only to resurface later as Rodriguez.

Lundy boarded the vessel and surveyed about 60 sponges in the skiffs. He walked gingerly past a pit bull puppy. Then he called Pharo.

Solidly built and square jawed, the 33-year-old Pharo had led the investigation against the two poachers. The Maryland native says he had always wanted to be a game warden. For months he had been waiting to make the arrests. Just when it seemed they had gathered all the evidence, along came the Columbus Day Regatta. The event, which can best be described as spring break on the water, ended in a negligent homicide. Cleaning up after the death sidetracked Pharo's poaching investigation for more than a month. On that December morning, however, Pharo agreed it might be time to end it. The ranger left park headquarters heading north to where the marine patrol officer had detained Caldentey and Garcia.

For surveillance on the spongers, Pharo had relied on a number of different law enforcement agencies, including the marine patrol. Given the inherent disadvantage of the park service, he couldn't have pulled it off without them. Spread out over 181,500 acres, Biscayne National Park is 95 percent water. Its territories cover a well-trafficked navigation route in southeast Florida. The park also is adjacent to an urban area that houses an estimated 2.5 million people. Thousands of tourists flock here every month, mostly by boat. And the park serves as a key border crossing for immigrants and drugs coming from the Caribbean.

Despite this the Department of the Interior contracts just seven people to police the entire area. Thanks to overlapping jurisdictions the rangers receive some help from the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Service, the Florida Marine Patrol, and the Miami-Dade Police Department.

During five months of Pharo's sponger investigation, Biscayne National Park had only four rangers working law enforcement. Chief ranger Wayne Elliot frets whether his fuel budget will make it to the end of fiscal year 2000. "My number-one priority is keeping our boats running and operational," he says. "I've been sitting on pins and needles hoping things slow down."

To put a stop to two wily, immigrant subsistence fishermen, Pharo enlisted everything from Burger King to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. "It took a lot of resources to catch these guys, because they were so wary," Pharo explains.

For a while in the early Nineties, the poachers didn't have much reason to fear the rangers, smiling smugly when they came calling. When their boats were stopped inside the park, the poachers would never have more than a few sponges on them. Caldentey and other spongers would dive under the hull and hide their spoils in bags tied to the shaft of the boat. When rangers discovered the trick, the poachers had to change tactics. Suddenly speed and stealth became of the essence.

The poachers would strike right after dawn, before the rangers came to work. They would fish as quickly as possible. If they sponged close to shore, they might post a third man atop a taller mangrove. South Biscayne Bay is an enormous, wide expanse of water. The lookout could signal his confederates with an airhorn when approaching boats were still miles away. At the slightest indication of the law, the poachers would drop their sponges.

Pharo insists the rangers could still have nabbed them with the evidence. "We could have jumped them with quick boats," he says. A helicopter from the north using the land as a shield had caught them at work in the past as well. The rangers, however, were tired of ticketing the poachers to no avail. "Because they were repeat offenders, we felt we had to up the ante," says Pharo.

The park service had a big card to play in a law called the Lacey Act. The law "prohibits import, export, transportation, sale, receipt, acquisition, or purchase of fish, wildlife, or plants that are taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any federal, state, tribal, or foreign law." As a felony offense, it carries a maximum of a $250,000 fine and five years' imprisonment. The act also allows for forfeiture of any equipment used in the crime.

To satisfy the requirements of the Lacey Act, the rangers had to prove a conspiracy by the spongers to poach more than $350 worth of wildlife with the intent to sell. To prove a detrimental impact on the park, they needed to show the men had taken large numbers of sponges. But judges in South Florida don't take the Lacey Act very seriously, some in enforcement believe. Pharo knew prosecutors required overwhelming evidence.

Yet with the cunning sponge poachers, Pharo was faced with one of the most difficult tasks of his career: how to collect enough evidence of the spongers' activities without alerting them. In the wide-open bay they needed to be close enough to identify them and far enough away so the poachers wouldn't realize they were being watched.

Pharo's plan began to take shape at the end of April 1999. From the Great Smokey Mountains National Park he borrowed a high-powered video camera. Then from U.S. Customs he laid his hands on a pair of image-stabilizing binoculars. From customs he also got a large sport-fishing boat. It was more than 50 feet, and not the kind of boat in which one would expect to find a park ranger. (Pharo refuses to give a more detailed description, since the undercover boat is still used in investigations.)

The rangers would arrive for their surveillance between 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning. They'd set up two synchronized video cameras. One would be pointed toward the poachers, the other focused on a radar screen to document the spongers' position within the park boundaries. Waiting outside the park would be a boat from another law-enforcement agency, such as the Coast Guard or Florida Marine Patrol. They would do a routine stop of the spongers when they had left the park with their illegal harvest. Once aboard they would count the sponges and check identification to supplement the evidence gathered by the cameras. Then the law-enforcement officials would allow them to go.

But the rangers used more than boats. The spongers could be watched with long-distance cameras from one of the tallest buildings on the bay: Burger King's world headquarters. From more than a dozen attempts at surveillance, Pharo put together about eight videos he thought could be used in court. "They had no idea we were there," he says.

Pharo and the other law-enforcement agents involved in the investigation took pains to establish the poachers knew they were breaking the law. Pharo had stopped both Caldentey and Garcia on numerous occasions to give them park regulations in both English and Spanish, explaining that sponging was illegal. He also provided the two men with maps showing the exact boundaries of the park so there would be no confusion. "I've given them every opportunity," says the ranger firmly.

Obstacles to capturing the two poachers continued to present themselves that December morning. On the way to meet Jason Lundy, the marine patrol officer, Pharo came upon a boat on fire, its owner overboard. "Life and property come first," he declares matter-of-factly. Pharo stopped to provide aid. At around the same time Lundy saw a plume of black smoke rise up to the south. He abandoned the poachers and headed toward the same fire.

Thirty minutes after rescuing the man overboard and securing the boat fire, Pharo and Lundy returned to the poachers. Lundy knew the spongers wouldn't get far in their slower craft. The officers caught up with Garcia and Caldentey outside the park near the sponger base of operations by Chicken Key.

"I think they were surprised that we came and arrested them," Pharo recalls.

Caldentey tried to use Juan Carlos Rodriguez again. Lundy demanded identification and Caldentey fished out his wallet from the berthing area. In it he had a driver's license that revealed his true name. "He's not the brightest of characters," Lundy laughs. Caldentey got real quiet once they knew who he really was, Pharo remembers.

Both Inocente Caldentey and Alberto Garcia stand about five feet five inches; their faces are sunburned and weather-beaten from years on the water. Caldentey is 44 years old and balding. He has a sixth-grade education and obtained his first driver's license in 1981. A year later he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and received probation. Over the next year he would have repeated brushes with the law for poaching and marine violations. State records show eleven boating citations.

Alberto Garcia is 45 years old. He didn't get past the third grade. According to one ranger report, Garcia has a distinguishing feature, a tattoo on top of his left foot that reads in Spanish: "This is your place, Teresa." State records indicate Garcia owns a homemade boat fifteen feet and six inches long that he uses for sponging. According to county records, in addition to poaching, Garcia was once arrested for drinking in public places.

In total Pharo estimates he and other federal and state officers spent hundreds of man hours trying to catch these two subsistence fishermen. They hope the arrest of the two men will deter others, because illegal harvesting in the park can be a serious threat to its vitality.

Poaching in the parks has very real consequences for biodiversity and the stability of the ecosystem, according to Daniel DiResta, coordinator for the marine-science program at the University of Miami. Sponges feed by filtering. They set themselves up in the current of inlets, channels, and canals. As they suck water through themselves, they remove small bacteria and microorganisms. Sponges can pump several times their volume a day. Based on pumping rates and number of sponges, they can turn over the water of the bay every few days.

"They stabilize sediment and without them the water quality would decline," explains DiResta. Besides ruining the brilliant clear blue-green waters for which the bay is famous, bad water quality also chokes off life in the estuary. And it's not just the clarity of the bay that's at risk, DiResta insists. Myriad life forms depend on the sponges; for example when the sponges disappear, so does habitat for lobster larvae. "It has a real impact on the microecosystem," says DiResta. "[Sponges] are like oceangoing condos."

The biologist is in his wet suit out on the bay, not far from where the poachers frequent. DiResta is taking time out from ferrying a graduate student to the coral reefs for a day of research. The average depth of the bay is eight feet. On a clear morning, it's easy to see the bottom. The professor dons his flippers, mask, and snorkel. He plunges into the transparent water to look for sponges.

DiResta has studied sponges for years. His work was partly responsible for the conclusion that fishing for sponges should be banned. When rangers began to catch the poachers before they became experts themselves, they would call DiResta to identify the different species.

Three main types of sponges are found in Biscayne Bay: grass, yellow, and wool. Under water all the sponges feel a little rubbery, and for a novice it often is difficult to tell the difference among the three varieties. The roughest of the three is the grass sponge, which the Cubans call macho cueva, or male cave. The yellow sponge, while not as coarse as the grass, is harder, tougher, and denser. The yellow sponge is known as macho fino, or fine male. It is used in industrial cleaning and painting. The rarest and most prized is the wool sponge. Called embras, or females, by the Cubans, the wool sponge is the softest and fetches the best price at market. There are enough of them in the park to make it prime hunting ground for embras.

In 1987 a disease epidemic in the Mediterranean wiped out most of the European sponges. Consequently sponge fishing in South Florida ballooned as the price for the creatures grew. "If they had kept up at the rate they were going, they would have harvested all of them," DiResta believes.

Not so insists Francisco Diaz, who speaks with the authority of 70 years of sponge fishing. "The more sponges they fish, the more sponges there are," he contends. "Sponges are now dying in the bay because they cannot fish them."

Diaz believes when a sponge is pulled from the bay bottom, it leaves spores that regenerate. Where the removed sponge once was, many can grow. A healthy sponge population depends on harvesting them, he maintains. "In Cuba we would clean the ground of sponges, and in two months they had grown back," he insists.

DiResta says the old fisherman is not entirely wrong. Studies have shown that downstream from the drying racks of the sponges, new colonies have grown, most likely from pieces that have fallen off. The problem, says DiResta, is that sponges grow slowly, which is why a sustainable commercial fishery is not possible. It takes ten years for a sponge the size of a fingertip to grow to maturity.

While conducting their studies, marine biologists learned the sponge population in the park is a closed community. Sponges do not receive new recruits from outside, making them more susceptible to overfishing. They need to be five or six inches before they can reproduce. In combination with the slow growth rate, unregulated fishing could easily wipe out the entire population. More troubling is that in response to the intensive harvesting, whereby the fishermen consistently took the best and largest, sponges in the bay were evolving into smaller creatures that reproduced quicker but lived briefer lives.

After identifying Garcia and Caldentey, Pharo called for the Coast Guard to tow the boat to Biscayne National Park headquarters while the two men were taken into custody. He also contacted Miami-Dade Animal Control to handle the pit bull. Caldentey and Garcia were brought to the federal detention center in downtown Miami for processing.

Bail for Alberto Garcia was set at $10,000. The bond was cosigned by Fidelina Quiroz, co-owner of a bar and restaurant on the Miami River that identifies itself as the Flagler Market and Cafeteria Comidas Chinas y Criollos, Cerveza y Vino. Garcia listed the market as his address. The fishermen buy supplies at the market, though it seems the most popular provisions are beer and sweet, cheap wine. Dusty Christmas decorations hang from the wall, and the stove runs hot all day long. Still the Flagler Market seems to be less a bustling spot for commerce than a place for out-of-work fisherman to kill time. A giant dried sponge rests on top of a door.

Because Inocente Caldentey had already fled once, his bail was set at $25,000. Prosecutors told the judge that since his arraignment in 1998, Caldentey had been caught six times for illegal poaching under the name Rodriguez. Unable to meet the bond, he spent the next 30 days in jail.

Prosecution of the case fell to the environmental-crimes section of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami. The office is one of five that deals exclusively with environmental crimes in the United States. Of all of them, the Miami office is the largest, with one part-time and four full-time lawyers.

"They were thumbing their nose at the law," says Diane Patrick, the assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case against the poachers. "They can't claim lack of knowledge. We provided them the info and then they wantonly went out and raped the environment."

Patrick says the office was hypersensitive to the fact Garcia and Caldentey are essentially poor fishermen. "We are dealing with people who live week to week," she acknowledges.

At the same time, her office has a mandate to protect and preserve a resource that is supposed to be for the public benefit, not just a few fishermen. Part of the problem is cultural, she believes. Some of the immigrants who engage in poaching come from countries where there is no history of strong environmental protection.

What Patrick and Pharo wanted more than anything was to ban the poachers from Biscayne and Everglades National Park. It made no sense to fine these fishermen, because they didn't have any money. Jail time seemed excessive and too harsh. Fourteen people currently are banned from Biscayne National Park, all but one for poaching. Eight of the fourteen were exiled for commercial sponging. "By banning them from the park, we are protecting the environment without depriving them of their livelihood," insists Patrick.

In the previous cases, poachers had been banned for two or three years. Patrick wanted five for Garcia and Caldentey.

On February 9 the two men appeared before U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno in a tenth-floor wood-paneled courtroom in the James L. King Federal Building. Dressed in their fishermen uniforms -- frayed dungarees and soiled shirts -- they seemed out of place amid the rich paneling and the tailored suits. Faced with the overwhelming evidence, their lawyers had worked out a plea agreement with Patrick. (Neither man consented to talk with New Times.)

Patrick gave a brief description of the evidence she would have presented had the men not copped a plea. She had documentation proving the men had taken 850 sponges from the park between 1996 and 1999 in eleven separate incidents, as well as expert testimony on the market value and type of sponges, and the men's confessions.

Moreno made much of Caldentey's name, Inocente, and ordered him to get into the habit of using it all the time. "That's a nice name for a criminal case," cracked the judge. He gave Caldentey and Garcia an opportunity to justify their actions but they declined to respond. He then modified and accepted the plea bargain.

Patrick got her ban. Moreno sentenced the men to four years of probation instead of five, with a special condition that both are exiled from Biscayne and Everglades National Park during the duration of the sentence.

"The rangers know who you are," admonished the judge. "If they see you, they know you will come before me, and it will mean five years in jail."

Patrick says she is thrilled by the ruling. "I think he saw the recidivism," she contends.

Francisco Diaz knows Caldentey and wonders if even the ban will make the men stop. "These are people who are trying to earn a living," he says. He doesn't think much of the science behind the ban either. "It is very easy to prohibit people if you are sitting in an office," says Francisco Diaz. "They have taken food away from the fishermen."

Sponge poaching seems to have stopped for the moment. But there are still plenty of high-quality wool sponges waiting in Biscayne National Park. The low level of enforcement and the lure of easy money are constant temptations. Although officials may have scored a victory against one group of immigrant fishermen, it's probable their convictions will be just another chapter in the history of poaching in the parks.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >