Journal article Open Access

Potential impacts of offshore oil and gas activities on deep-sea sponges and the habitats they form

Vad, J; Kazanidis, G; Henry, L-A; Jones, D O B; Tendal, O S; Christiansen, T H; Roberts J M

Sponges form an important component of benthic ecosystems from shallow littoral to hadal depths. In the deep ocean, beyond the continental shelf, sponges can form high- density  fields, constituting important habitats supporting rich benthic communities. Yet these habitats remain relatively unexplored. The oil and gas industry has played an important role in  advancing our knowledge of deep-sea environments. Since its inception in the 1960s, offshore oil and gas industry has moved into deeper waters. However, the impacts of these activities on deep-sea sponges and other ecosystems are only starting to become the subject of active research. Throughout the development, operation and closure of an oil or gas field  many activities take place, ranging from the seismic exploration of sub seafloor geological  features to the installation of infrastructure at the seabed to the drilling process itself. These routine activities and accidental releases of hydrocarbons during spills can significantly 
impact the local marine environment. Each phase of a field development or an accidental oil  spill will therefore have different impacts on sponges at community, individual and cellular  levels. Legacy issues regarding the future decommissioning of infrastructure and the abandonment of wells are also important environmental management considerations. This chapter reviews our understanding of impacts from hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation  activities on deep-sea sponges and the habitats they form. These impacts include those (1) at  community level, decreasing the diversity and density of benthic communities associated  with deep-sea sponges owing to physical disturbance of the seabed; (2) at individual level, interrupting filtration owing to exposure to increased sedimentation; and (3) at cellular level, decreasing cellular membrane stability owing to exposure to drill muds. However, many  potential effects not yet tested in deep-sea sponges but observed in shallow-water sponges or other model organisms should also be taken into account. Furthermore, to the best of our knowledge, no studies have shown impact of oil or dispersed oil on deep-sea sponges. To  highlight these significant knowledge gaps, a summary table of potential and known impacts of hydrocarbon extraction and production activities combined with a simple “traffic light”  scheme is also provided. 

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