The Forgotten Coast is home to a storied history of the sponge industry. In the late 1800s, a fleet of 16 ships called Apalachicola home, and seasoned sailors would strap on brass helmets and lead boots to harvest the region’s most profitable crop. After being harvested, the sponges were taken to the Apalachicola Sponge Exchange, where buyers would inspect and then bid on the sponges. From there, the sponges traveled across America, all the way from San Francisco to New York City. The thriving industry came to a halt in 1939, when over-harvesting and red tide led to a complete ban, and it was not until 2007 that sponging was again allowed in Apalach.
The demand for sponges today is notably different; Apalachicola Bay sponges are a niche product, often shipped to spas or companies with a “green” focus that value the renewable aspect of natural sponges. And the local company has a deep respect for this deep sea treasure—they make an effort to help protect the reproduction of sponges by always leaving three inches (the length needed for the sponges to regenerate) and squeezing the reproductive spores of the sponges while underwater.
Almost as storied as the sponge industry is today’s Apalachicola Sponge Company. The owners, Jerry and Joyce Garlick, are longtime residents of and contributors to the area—Jerry was a postal worker until 1995, and Joyce spent years working in the local seafood industry.
In 1995, they opened an antique business in the original Sponge Exchange building. Soon after, they looked into expanding into the natural sponge business. The rest, as they say, is history! Jerry is now the only sponge broker on the Florida Panhandle, and his company sells sponges all across the country. Visitors to the area are welcome in their store, now located in the historic Zingarelli Building across from The Owl Cafe in downtown Apalachicola. One of the most important (and enjoyable) missions of Jerry, Joyce, and the whole Apalachicola Sponge Company family is education about sponges. Apalachicola sponges, as stationary creatures, play an important role in gauging the Gulf’s health in addition to lending themselves to a multitude of eco-friendly uses!
You can learn more about the Apalachicola Sponge Company or make online orders at their website, or visit their store at 14 Avenue D, Monday through Friday from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.