EU-funded research into North Atlantic sponge grounds aims to discover unique sponge ecosystems. This should improve understanding of such ecosystems functioning, help predict threats, ensure their sustainable use and assess their links to human well-being.
© Hans Tore Rapp
The oldest living animal group on earth, sponges are known to have existed for over 600 million years. They are remarkably diverse, with the number of species estimated at over 25 000. Sponge grounds are themselves complex ecosystems and sponges also play a crucial role in the functioning of wider deep-sea ecosystems.
Although ubiquitous in deep sea and of huge ecological importance, sponges have been largely overlooked in research and conservation work. Often found in areas such as shelves, slopes, ridges, canyons and fjords, they are vulnerable to human activities such as fishing, mining for minerals or drilling for oil and gas.
In response, the EU-funded SPONGES project is developing a new ecosystem-based approach to preserving deep-sea sponges and making sure that they are used sustainably. This is of particular importance given sponges potential to contribute to technological innovation.
They are known to be the source of around 5 000 active compounds that can be used for product development. SPONGES is also looking for new compounds to develop sponge-based materials able to contribute to innovation, particularly by biotech companies.
Our investigation of aspects such as sponge distribution both geographically and over time diversity, function and evolution helps to improve scientific knowledge of these ecosystems, says project coordinator Hans Tore Rapp of the University of Bergen, Norway. The modelling of potential threats to sponge grounds and the impact of such threats will make it easier to predict and understand future changes, be they man-made or climate-driven. This will support conservation.
Benefits for industry and policymakers
Given the potential impact of the fishing and extractive industries on sponge grounds, there may be concern among people in those fields about the effect of the findings of the project on their livelihoods.
In the case of the fishing industry, Rapp stresses that sponge grounds serve as habitat for many fish and invertebrate species, including some that are exploited commercially.
By providing a clearer understanding of how sponge ecosystems support marine life and fisheries SPONGES research could help with the design of polices to ensure sustainable fishing, he says.
Through its efforts to map deep sea sponge ecosystems, SPONGES supports industries such as the oil, gas and minerals sector, by enabling informed decision making on spatial planning in deep sea areas.
Rather than slowing down development, this should ensure the best possible use of marine environments so as to benefit everyone, Rapp adds. One of the projects goals is to strengthen the links between science and public policy to ensure the sustainable management of sponge ecosystems.
Implications for human well-being
More generally, the research could have significant implications for overall human well-being. For a long time, sponges were classified as plants and it was not until the 19th Century that they came to be recognised as part of the animal kingdom. In fact, they share a large part of their genes with humans.
By assessing links between deep-sea sponges and human well-being, SponGES will contribute to ensuring their responsible use and their availability as an important natural resource for generations to come, says Rapp.