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Spongeless boats ordered to ship out

Tarpon Springs asks sponge boat owners who use the Sponge Docks to prove they're still in business.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published March 28, 2004

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Tarpon Springs sponge boat owner and diver Muhip Goktepe, 45, cleans wool sponges Friday aboard the St. Phillip at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks. Goktepe owns the sponge boat Trigger Fish, which he had to tie off next to the St. Phillip because there was no room at the dock.

TARPON SPRINGS - Got sponge? Take the plunge.

Sponge-free? Hit the sea.

That's the city's new mantra to sponge boat owners who tie up for free along Tarpon Springs' historic Sponge Docks. After years of lax enforcement, city officials are once again asking sponge boat owners to prove that they're still in business or dock their boats elsewhere.

"We're really trying to get active sponge boats in there because it's a tourist attraction," said city public services director John Cruz.

For nearly a decade, city ordinances have required Tarpon Springs sponge boat owners who use Sponge Docks slips to register their boats annually. Under the city rules, spongers also must prove they're still active by presenting proof that they harvest at least $10,000 worth of sponges each year. In exchange, spongers are allowed to tie up their boats for free at the Sponge Docks. They can also park along Dodecanese Boulevard while they're loading or unloading.

But only about half of the 13 sponge boat owners that use their Sponge Docks privileges make regular sponging trips, Cruz said. Other boats have fallen into disrepair and are rarely used, he said. As a result, the city notified seven sponge boat owners last month they have 30 days to prove they're active. Owners that don't have such proof will have to find new homes.

It's about time, said sponger Tasso Karistinos. After roughly a decade of struggling to maneuver around the derelict boats, Karistinos, 51, decided to dock his boat elsewhere, he said.

"Lots of times you can't even get in there," Karistinos said. "Most of the people down there don't know how to tie a boat down. They tie their boats like they're donkeys."

The city started the special sponge boat docking registration in order to encourage more people to become active in the city's famous but fading sponge industry. Enforcement of the rules, however, fell by the wayside after local spongers imported Greek divers to give the industry a boost, Cruz said. Now that the ongoing program is no longer directly endorsed by the city, officials are eager to make way for new sponge boats, he said.

That's good news for Solon Zagorianos. Zagorianos bought his 48-foot sponge boat Solo about six months ago. He has been eagerly waiting for a Sponge Docks slip to open up ever since. Starting up a sponge boat business is tough enough, he said, without having to pay expensive marina fees.

"No sponge boat can afford to pay marina fees," Zagorianos said. "Besides, when we come in, we have to wash all the sponges out on the marina. No marina is going to put up with that."

But Dunedin resident and sponge boat owner James "Beau" Proctor was none too pleased when he received a letter from the city about his boat three weeks ago. Proctor, 33, is a seven-year veteran of the sponge industry. He saved up enough money early last year to buy his own 25-foot sponge boat and began tying up at the Sponge Docks in July. Proctor managed to make six sponging trips but only brought in $1,000 before the sponging season ended last year. He said the city's new campaign is unfair to smaller boat owners, especially those like him who are just starting out in the business.

"I feel like the guys that have big boats are picking on the guys that have little boats," Proctor said. "Those guys had 12 months to get enough sponge for $10,000 and I only had two or three months."

Sponge Associates of Florida president Jeff Love disagrees. He supports tougher city enforcement of sponge boat registration rules.

"We do have a problem down there and I'm glad the city is doing something about it," Love said. "When we come back from a trip in our boats we have to play musical boats down there. It's an inconvenience."

Longtime sponge merchant George Billiris said derelict sponge boat owners shouldn't complain. He said a more active sponging fleet will only boost the city's reputation and bring in more tourist dollars.

"Dockage is prime," Billiris said. "Weigh it against the fact that you have a multimillion dollar tourist industry, it's not even a loss to take those boats out of there."

Sponge or no sponge, dockside boat space is at a premium in Tarpon Springs. During the peak tourist season high demand for wet boat slips fuels an average market rate of roughly $2 a foot per day. Last week, Landings co-owner Merle Seamon said his Oscar Hill Road marina can barely keep up with requests for wet slips.

"Wet slips are an extremely valuable commodity in this market," Seamon said.

While a handful of sponge boat owners get free docking from the city, transient boat owners will pay $1.50 per foot a day at Seamon's marina.

At 90 cents a foot per day, the city marina is a bargain by comparison. The goal of beefing up enforcement is to encourage more sponging, Cruz said. But if some of the Sponge Docks slips remain unused, they could eventually become part of the city marina and provide extra revenue for the city, he added. No decision has been made yet, however, and it could be months before the city makes any such move, Cruz said.

- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 771-4307 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 28, 2004, 01:35:48]


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