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Sponge skippers told to get busy

Sponge boat owners who are allowed to keep their boats at a city dock for free may have to take more frequent sponging trips.

The city could start enforcing an agreement this week with the 10 or so boat owners who use the city dock across the street from the Sponge Exchange, said Juan Cruz, public services director for the city.

Each of the owners has signed an agreement promising to take regular sponging trips, display the sponges for tourists and participate in auctions at the Sponge Docks in order to dock for free, Cruz said.

Some of the boat owners have not held up their end of the agreement, he said. He plans to meet Thursday with the owners and with Sponge Associates of Florida, a newly formed organization designed to promote sponging.

"They have to comply to dock there free," Cruz said. "It's really that simple."

In the mid 1990s, sponge boats were charged $720 a year to stay at the city dock. The fee was later dropped and the boats were allowed to stay as long as owners agreed to take regular trips and display the sponges before tourists.

If they are deemed not in compliance with the agreement, boat owners could be fined or their boats could be removed, according to city ordinances.

Cruz did not name any boats that have not been in compliance. He said boats would not comply with the agreement if they were deemed not to be in working condition, if they didn't take regular sponging trips and if they did not display the sponges for tourists.

"In the past, there have been people that have been in violation and the action was not taken," Cruz said. "I don't want to have selective enforcement. When I start enforcing it, I will enforce it fairly."

George Billiris, whose boat St. Nicholas III docks for free, said the agreement shouldn't be enforced immediately because there simply aren't enough workers to go on the sponge boats. The boat owners shouldn't be punished because of a shortage of workers, said Billiris, a sponge merchant.

"This is an ordinance that hasn't been complied with because of the lack of people," he said. "The industry has been troubled for the lack of manpower."

The city should wait until the newly formed Sponge Associates of Florida brings over sponge divers from Greece, he said. With the help of a state grant, the city is working on bringing skilled divers from Greece. The divers will work on the boats and train local people in the trade.

The divers could arrive within the next few months, Billiris said.

In the meantime, he said, the city should not be too quick to punish the boats that aren't working.

"Don't pull the rug out from under us," said Billiris, who is married to Tarpon Springs City Commissioner Beverley Billiris.

Cruz said he could begin enforcing the agreement as soon as Friday. But he added that the Sponge Associates and the boat owners may present information Thursday that would delay the start of the enforcement.

If they say they will begin taking regular trips when the divers from Greece come to Tarpon Springs, for instance, Cruz said he might ask the city manager and city commissioners to let him delay the start of the enforcement.

_ Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182.