Sponge Farms – New Bounty from the Sea

Patricia Grogg*

Cuban beach sunset.  Photo: Caridad
Cuban beach sunset. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Nov 30 (IPS) – The Ocean punishes Carahatas every time a hurricane tears through the region. The sea combines with the flow of a nearby river, and floods the houses with water a meter and a half deep, or more. Nevertheless, the residents of this Cuban town are deeply attached to the sea.

“When I go several days without seeing the ocean, I get upset. If a cyclone comes and tears down the house, as long as one wall is left standing and I can put up as much as a tent, I’m staying here. And there are many more like me,” said Neldys Vivero, 50, born and raised in this fishing village on Cuba’s northeast coast, in the province of Villa Clara.

In 1985, Hurricane Kate left her parents and many other residents of Carahatas homeless. They were taken to Lutgardita, a community built four kilometers away. “Now I go to see them, and I can’t stay more than 20 minutes because it is so small, and it’s just not for me,” she said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Estrella Machado, 88, says the reason for her deep love for the sea is simple: “It’s what there is most of. At least when it comes to jobs, what there is most is fishing.”

The “only fisherwoman” in the community until 1985, Machado points out that “there used to be more fish.”

Vivero agrees. She began fishing as a child with Machado and her husband. “I remember that between the three of us we would pull up a basket with 40, 50, even 70 pounds (18, 23 and 32 kilograms) of ‘pagro’ (red porgy). Today, at the most, you’ll find five or six pagros in a basket,” she said.

Most of the 300 families in Carahatas are aware of at least some of the causes of the decline in marine life. “The big bottom trawlers finish off the young. We never used the trawler nets. We fished with baskets or with hook and line,” Machado said.

Declining Catch

According to Vivero, the bottom trawler technique – and its negative impacts on undersea vegetation and fish stocks – was introduced in the area in the 1970s. “We didn’t have a clear notion of the harm it was causing.”

Fishing.  Photo: Caridad
Fishing. Photo: Caridad

A natural community leader who was re-elected many times as citizen representative for one of the two administrative districts in the area, Vivero says that most local fishers now recognize how aggressive trawling is, although it is currently regulated.

Trawlers are used to catch the fish species that gather in undersea channels and in seaweed beds before they migrate in schools to their breeding areas. The result is that the fish are caught before they can reproduce, thus compromising future stocks.

But that isn’t the only challenge in Carahatas, which neighbors Las Picúas-Cayo Cristo Wildlife Refuge, a protected area of 40,250 marine hectares and 15,720 land hectares.

The liquid and solid waste that the local population dumps along the coast, as well as deforestation, also affects the marine habitat and is among the problems to be tackled in a plan outlined by a project financed by the Small Grants Program of the Global Environment Facility.

A New Option

Channeled through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the project for the “Alternative Use of Natural Resources in the Coastal Community of Carahatas” proposes, among other aims, the cultivation of sea sponges as an employment option for fisherfolk committed to methods other than trawler fishing.

Felisberto Rodríguez, 45, one of the first local residents to understand the need for alternatives, explained that the Carahatas fishers never thought that sea sponges could be farmed. But now that they have seen the initial results they are just waiting for the farms to be expanded so they can join the initiative.

Rodriguez worked on the experimental cultivation of two sea hectares in the effort overseen by Angel Quiros, an expert from the marine ecology group of the government’s Centre for Environmental Studies and Services (CESAM) of Villa Clara, 276 km from Havana.

The plan now is to cultivate 12 hectares, which in one year are expected to yield one ton of sponges that would sell for more than 15,000 dollars on the international market. According to calculations by Quiros, the area has the potential for about 15 sponge farms, each run by two people.

“I already have planted three areas of more than 100 square meters each. The sea itself provides the ‘seed’,” said Rodriguez. “Each sponge can be divided into 30 pieces, and that has to be done in the water. I like to be in the ocean depths. Sponge growth is slow, but when the harvests begin, everyone will see the results.”

Quiros defends this unique crop as a sustainable, inexpensive and environmentally friendly option because it does not create pollution, alter the habitat or produce waste – nor does it suffer the effects of climate change. Furthermore, he assures that these invertebrates have a secure market, primarily in Europe.

“The sponges remain submerged even if the sea level decreases or increases. Because they grow in areas of stronger water circulation, they aren’t affected by fluctuations in temperature. In addition, the farms create shelters for small organisms and for the offspring of larger animals,” said the marine biologist.

Interest Should Rise with Marketing

Neldys Vivero admits that in the beginning she didn’t see the potential of sponge farming. But now she is convinced that the Carahatas coast “is very suitable, with many good sites for this crop,” which will provide employment for many women and men in this small town.

“Interest will increase as the commercialization begins and expands,” she said. With stable production, industrial processing of the sea sponge would turn into a good source of employment for women, according to Vivero. Here, 67 percent of the women work in their homes, and of those, “35 or 36 percent are asking for jobs,” she said.

The initiative, coordinated by Maria Elena Perdomo, of CESAM, has included workshops on environmental education, reforestation, and proposals for reducing pollution, such as creating a dump outside the town.

It also produced a guide for growing sea sponges and a manual of best environmental practices in coastal zones.

“We were able to convince people of the importance of taking care of resources and how to use them in a better way. They also gave us a lot of information… Now the people feel ownership for what they are doing,” said Vivero.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialized news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Program, United Nations Environment Program and the World Bank.)

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