We’ve heard of coral farming, oyster farming, seaweed farming and yes even sea squirt farming, but sponge farming was a first. We see a few small colorful varieties of sponges being sold for reef tanks, however there is not a large enough demand from the hobby to support commercial farming of sponges. In Micronesia, sponges are being farmed around the Island of Pohnpei for industrial, medical and cometic use.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Japanese farmers in Micronesia experimented with different sponge growing techniques, only to have their efforts halted by the outbreak of World War II. Today, sponge aquaculture is being rediscovered in the Pacific Ocean region thanks to the work of MERIP and modern sponge farming pioneer Richard Croft.
Sponges grow best in silty nutrient rich lagoons and in their natural habitat sponges can overgrow reefs, and serve an important function of cleaning the water. Sponges can be ‘fragged’ by taking a few smaller pieces of sponge off a larger mother colony and leaving them to grow on rope for two years before harvest.
The MERIP sponge farm project in Pohnpei is focused on culturing the Micronesian Wool sponge (Cosinoderma matthewsi), which is used as a bathing product and has developed farming methods for a smaller, finer sponge (Spongia matamata), which is used for facial exfoliating. The two sponges occur naturally in the sheltered lagoons of Micronesi and once the farms are set up growing sponges is cheap and easy with little to no maintenance costs.
Earlier this year we wrote about coral farming in Indonesia as a way for coastal island communities to make a sustainable income from the ocean. In Micronesia communities are using their available resources from the ocean and turning it into a profitable family business. MERIP currently works with over 30 farmers in Pohnpei who grow and dry both types of sponges.
Although this system works well in Micronesia, and we have come across other example of successful alternative ocean livelihood projects, they are often challenging to replicate. You can download the sponge farming manual online and in theory other coastal communities would be able to set up the simple sponge farms, however it is getting the product to market which is the most challenging aspect.
The Micronesia sponge farm works because they have a large network of farmers which ensure a steady supply of sponges. The MERIP website claims the Pohnpeian Bath and Facial Sponges are sold worldwide through a network of ethical wholesalers who retail organic and sustainably made natural products. To establish a large worldwide trade networks is no easy feat and without the help of international organization villagers who be unlikely to establish these trade partners.
I am curious as a hobby how we could create a network of ethical minded buyers who actively seek out farm grown corals from sustainable coastal community projects. I say buyers since retailers have tried selling and marketing sustainable harvested fish and corals but found consumers were often unwilling to pay extra. If people are willing to pay extra for ethically farmed sponges or organic grown apples you would think some of us with go the extra mile to make sure our corals follow suit.