Removal of deep-sea sponges by bottom trawling in the Flemish Cap area: conservation, ecology and economic assessment

Pham, Christopher K.Murillo, Francisco JavierLirette, CamilleMaldonado, Manuel Colaço, AnaOttaviani, D.Kenchington, Ellen L. R.  Scientific Reports 9 : 15843 (2019)  DIGITAL CSIC

Deep-sea sponge grounds are vulnerable marine ecosystems, which through their benthic-pelagic coupling of nutrients, are of functional relevance to the deep-sea realm. The impact of fishing bycatch is here evaluated for the first time at a bathyal, sponge-dominated ecosystem in the high seas managed by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. Sponge biomass surfaces created from research survey data using both random forest modeling and a gridded surface revealed 231,140 t of sponges in the area. About 65% of that biomass was protected by current fisheries closures. However, projections of trawling tracks estimated that the sponge biomass within them would be wiped out in just 1 year by the current level of fishing activity if directed on the sponges. Because these sponges filter 56,143 ± 15,047 million litres of seawater daily, consume 63.11 ± 11.83 t of organic carbon through respiration, and affect the turnover of several nitrogen nutrients, their removal would likely affect the delicate ecological equilibrium of the deep-sea benthic ecosystem. We estimated that, on Flemish Cap, the economic value associated with seawater filtration by the sponges is nearly double the market value of the fish catch. Hence, fishery closures are essential to reach sponge conservation goals as economic drivers cannot be relied upon.