What is a sponge?
There are more than 9,000 sponge species in the world’s oceans. Because they don’t move, you might think that sponges are plants, but they are actually considered animals—think of a sponge as a bunch of single-celled organisms that all work together to survive. These creatures feed by pumping and filtering water through the many holes and canals that make up the sponge structure.1
Only few species are harvested and sold commercially. In Florida, sponges are brought to the surface by hooking or cutting them away from the sea floor. Hooking is practiced in the Florida Keys, while cutting is more common in the northern Gulf of Mexico.1
Research has shown that sponges can survive and regenerate themselves after both kinds of harvesting techniques, though outcomes for cut sponges are better than those for hooked sponges (71% versus 41% survival rate).1
Sponges are an important part of marine ecosystems.
- As filter-feeders, they affect water chemistry and nutrient levels.
- They are important habitat for a variety of marine life, including young spiny lobster, shrimp, and stone crab.2
Over the last two decades, algae blooms have devastated sponge populations in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys. However, Florida Sea Grant has conducted trials to see whether sponge cuttings can be transplanted and established. This kind of technique has shown promise for restoring communities in areas affected by algae blooms.2
- John Stevely and Don Sweat, Florida’s Marine Sponges: Exploring the Potential and Protecting the Resource, SGEF169, Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 2013, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/sg095
- Mark Butler, Don Behringer, Shelly Krueger, and John Stevely, Sponges: The Keys to the Keys, SG215, Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 2014, https://www.flseagrant.org/wp-content/uploads/SGEF_215_SpongeRestoration_web1.pdf
UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones