In the sheltered lagoons of Pohnpei, Micronesia, the Marine and Environmental Research Institute of Pohnpei (MERIP) has set up a sea sponge farming operation as a means of generating a sustainable livelihood for local community members, many of which have no access to running water or electricity, and little means of earning money.
MERIP's mission is "To promote sustainable development and livelihoods for Micronesians, through natural resource conservation, and to research, teach, demonstrate and transfer technologies that allow Micronesians to improve their lives while maintaining core traditional values and minimizing impact to the environment."
Under this mission MERIP members work with individuals and families in rural, coastal communities to develop alternative sources of income for the local people, many of whom still primarily live a subsistence lifestyle or are largely dependent on fisheries-generated incomes. One of the main products grown by MERIP members are natural sea sponges for bathing and cleaning for which they receive a very good return for their time, with an hourly wage that is much higher than the minimum local wage.
Two species of sponges are grown: the wool bath sponge ( Cosinoderma matthewsi ) and the smaller cosmetic sponge ( Spongia matamata ). Large, healthy sponges from the sponge farm are cut into small pieces, about the size of a table tennis ball, and threaded onto underwater lines. The pieces are left to grow in the lagoon for around two years before harvesting. Sponges are primitive, filter-feeding animals and do not need to be fed. Although sponges are animals they have no nerves and cutting them causes no pain. No chemicals are used in the farming process. Free divers remove seaweed and encrusting animals from the sponges and culture lines by hand each month.
When the sponges have grown into a nice rounded shape and ideal size they are harvested. Some of the largest specimens are kept to be divided up for the next batch of sponges. The sponges are left in the air to dry for several hours and then placed in baskets and returned to the lagoon for a few weeks. This process removes all the organic matter from the sponge, leaving the odourless spongin (collagen) skeleton, which will become your sustainable sponge.
The sponges are cleaned by washing them twice in a household washing machine and then air dried. This process gives the sponges a superior softness. Marine biologists from MERIP do a final quality check of each sponge before it is packaged and sold.
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