Torres Strait Ready for Sponge Farm


1 March 2007

If regulatory approval is received, a pilot sponge farm could be established in Torres Strait. The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), in collaboration with CRC Torres Strait, the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and the Yorke Island Community Council, has completed a two year study on the feasibility of and best practice methods for farming sponges at Masig (Yorke) Island.

The study revealed that Masig Island has a large population of Coscinoderma , an apt species for the bath sponge market. Scientists showed that Coscinoderma was suitable for farming and had a growth rate that would be sustainable for industry harvest.

The researchers left sponges to grow in the sea for nine months before they reached marketable size.

The researchers left sponges to grow in the sea for nine months before they reached marketable size.
Photo: Dr Alan Duckworth

Mesh panels were shown by the scientists to be the optimal farming method for the sponges.

Mesh panels were shown by the scientists to be the optimal farming method for the sponges.
Photo: Dr Alan Duckworth

Coscinoderma sponges were transplanted seasonally in a farming experiment.

Coscinoderma sponges were transplanted seasonally in a farming experiment.
Photo: Dr Alan Duckworth

The research included investigations into the optimal season, site, and farming methods for the industry. Dr Alan Duckworth, project leader, said his team sought to determine the most economical and ecologically sustainable farming techniques for the region.

"We had a lot of things to consider from environmental impacts to market demands. For example, the shape of the mature sponges was very important in determining which farming method was selected."

AIMS scientists are very pleased with the results which support the feasibility of growing sponges in the Torres Strait.

"There are abundant wild sponge stocks in the region which recover well from seed harvest and environmental conditions seem to be optimal for growth of the seed stock. From a biological perspective, our results support the prospect of a sponge farm at Masig," said Dr Duckworth.

Local residents participated in the dive and field work components of the project which has received widespread support from the local community.

Yorke Island Community Council (YICC) is currently seeking funding to establish the farm. If successful, the project could lead to the development of other farms in the area. YICC chairman, Don Mosby, said that the community would benefit from a commercial sponge farm.

"The community has been involved in this project every step of the way and there is a lot of support to develop a commercial operation.

"We still need to put the plan through some rigorous business testing to be certain it is economically viable but at this point things are looking very promising."

Dr Duckworth believes that sponge aquaculture will be the most environmentally sustainable way of meeting market demands into the future.

"Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative to wild harvest which has devastated sponge populations in other regions. We believe that the environmental impacts of a commercial sponge farm at Masig Island would be extremely minimal"

Natural sponges are sought after by cosmetic and industrial cleaning companies due to their highly absorbent skeletons. At present, international demand for bath sponges far outweighs the supply reserves. The world sponge industry, which is primarily supplied by the Mediterranean and the Caribbean is worth over $40M.

Yorke Island sponge diver Samson Lowatta, installs mesh panels with tiny sponges which will be left to grow for nine months.

Yorke Island sponge diver Samson Lowatta, installs mesh panels with tiny sponges which will be left to grow for nine months.
Photo: Dr Alan Duckworth

AIMS scientists conducted experimental studies to determine the optimal size for the seed sponges (called explants).

AIMS scientists conducted experimental studies to determine the optimal size for the seed sponges (called explants).
Photo: Dr Alan Duckworth

Media contacts:

Dr Alan Duckworth , AIMS scientist
Telephone :07 4753 4171
Email : a.duckworth@aims.gov.au

Susan Reilly , TSRA Public Affairs Officer,
Telephone :07 4069 0700,
Email : susan.reilly@tsra.gov.au

Wendy Ellery , AIMS Media Liaison
Telephone : 07 4753 4409
Mobile : 0418 729 265
Email : w.ellery@aims.gov.au