The world’s largest sponge farm

By David Gilchrist 17 December 2010
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The Palm Island project aims to sustain jobs and repair a damaged community through its huge commercial sponge farm.

IN A TINNIE just offshore from a community with a sinister reputation as one of the most violent in Australia, 21-year-old Gavin Bramwell and 50-year-old Maurice “Old Moe” Lenoy clean unwanted debris from homemade sponge panels. They cheerfully flick the jetsam overboard, away from the 50 cm long panels, and the area that is set to hold the world’s largest commercial sponge farm. Gavin says it’s a chance to “make a name for this island because too many bad things are said about us”.

Until the Palm Island project – and a spin-off on York Island in Torres Strait – all commercial bath-sponge suppliers relied on wild harvest. Climate change and overfishing now make wild harvest unreliable, so the Palm Island sponge farm has the potential to become the world’s major commercial supplier.

Its 28ha are spread across seven sites between Great Palm and Pelorus islands. Divers are currently establishing the first two sites. Each 4ha site will grow up to 16,000 Rhopaleoides and Conscinoderma sponges on more than 10,000 panels. Fifteen horizontal long-lines will connect 58 vertical rope and 870 chain risers, each riser holding around 12 panels at a depth of up to 20 m. The project should eventually sustain 35 jobs on an island with 90-95 per cent unemployment.

Sponge farm coalition a collaborative approach

Almost a decade ago, the Department of State Development, Innovation and Trade (DSDIT) asked the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville about prospects for a viable commercial marine project for the island. At the time, AIMS were examining the remarkable ability of sponges to produce chemicals that can’t be recreated in a laboratory – chemicals that could help in the development of anti-cancer or other beneficial drugs.

In 2000, an AIMS, DSDIT and Coolgaree Community Development Employment Program coalition set about exploring the possibility of sponge farming. After a sponge survey in 2001, the Manbarra people – the island’s traditional owners – and the Coolgaree Aboriginal Corporation established an Indigenous Land Use Agreement that opened the way for sponge farming in late 2005.

Many locals are reticent to join the crew for fear of the sharks that inhabit the waters around the island, and current diving duties and the day-to-day running of the farm is undertaken by non-Manbarra locals, including Gavin and Old Moe.

Libby Evans-Illidge, the AIMS senior research scientist for the project, says research suggests Palm Island will be at the centre of a sustainable and viable industry, but progress has not always been smooth. In 2005, AIMS advertised for sponge-farm trainees from within the island community. They received 11 candidates and identified that they might need pre-vocational numeracy and literacy training.

“What we didn’t take into account was everyone’s ability to pass a commercial dive medical,” Libby says. “At the end of that pre-vocational period everyone went for their medicals in preparation for dive training and only one or two passed. That was really awful because it was devastating for some people. So the next time around we made passing the dive medical one of the recruitment steps. I think it was something we underestimated – this issue of Aboriginal health.”

Indigenous sponge farm helping the community

But the next intake saw no candidates apply. Local apprehension about diving had overwhelmed their enthusiasm for the project, so an introductory dive course was run in 2006, which inspired the current divers – including Gavin – to become involved.

“It’s what I love to do and it’s at home,” Gavin says. “It is important for me to stay home. Home equals freedom.” Before the farm he “cruised around” the island, riding motorbikes and free-diving for crayfish. Now he provides a modest living for his partner Sharvanna Alberts and their baby daughter Denacia.

He’s hopeful that the sponge farm will be so successful that his daughter will eventually want to work there too. “She might be diving with me,” he says. “I’ll be 50 and still divin’. I know it’s going to be good.”

Old Moe also remains optimistic about the project. “It will work; it has got to work,” he says. In 2005, when he first heard about the chance to become a sponge-farm scuba diver, he gave up his hospital nightwatchman job of six years to live in the bush and wait until the traineeship became available. “It’s a chance for self-esteem and pride for my daughter,” he says. “Good for my family, good for my community and good for me.”

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 90 (Apr-Jun, 2008)