Journal article Open Access

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

Pham, CK; Murillo, FJ; Lirette, C; Maldonado, M; Colaço, A; Ottaviani, D; Kenchington, E


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.

DATA AVAILABILITY: The authors confirm that all data underlying the findings are fully available without restriction. Data from Canadian research vessel surveys are deposited in the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) at Spanish/EU data are available at Figshare with the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: This research has been performed within the scope of the SponGES project, which received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 679849. This document reflects only the authors' views and the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME) is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains. The EU groundfish surveys in the NAFO area were co-funded by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO), the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere (IPMA), the Spanish Institute for Marine Research Superior Council of Scientific Investigations (IIM-CSIC) and the European Union through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) within the National Program of collection, management and use of data in the fisheries sector and support for scientific advice regarding the Common Fisheries Policy. AC is supported by Program Investigador (IF/00029/2014/CP1230/CT0002) from FCT. This study had also the support of Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT), through the strategic projects UID/MAR/04292/2013 granted to MARE. Fisheries and Oceans, Canada provided support through their International Governance Strategy project funds (Science Advice in Support of the 2020 NAFO Review of Closed Areas to Protect Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems in the NRA) to EK. RIGHTS AND PERMISSIONS: Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit
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