Scientists observe real-time impacts of industrial activity on deep-sea sponges

  • Offshore oil well drilling impacting deep-sea habitats are photographed in real-time.
  • Impacted sponges have been photographed potentially partially recovering from sedimentation over 40 days.
  • Partnering with industry allows us to make real-time observations to better understand impacts.
  • The research is published with open access in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Scientists from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and the University of Edinburgh have made the first real-time photo observations of the impacts of offshore oil well drilling on deep-sea sponges. The photos show a sponge being covered in sediment over about 5 days, and then appearing to partially recover by removing that sediment over about 40 days.

Sedimentation is an impact of many offshore industries, including oil and gas exploitation, dredging, fishing and seabed mining. Dr Jennifer Durden, NOC Deep Sea Ecologist who led the study, said “Monitoring impacts to remote habitats, such as the deep sea, is difficult, but photography is now making that possible.

“This research showed how photos could be used for environmental monitoring during industrial activities, and also provides real-world observations that could help in making better environmental impact assessments.”

Sponges are an important part of the seabed environment, providing habitat for other organisms and cycling carbon and other nutrients. Dr Johanne Vad, a sponge expert from the University of Edinburgh and a co-author of the study, said “Lab studies have shown that sponges are vulnerable to sedimentation, which can clog them and reduce their feeding, breathing, and growth.”

“The sponge in this study appeared to recover externally somewhat, by moving either from tides and/or it moving itself. Observing the condition of the sponge during and after a real sedimentation event provides context to lab studies which help us understand marine ecosystems’ resilience, and its limits, to human pressures.”

The photos were taken with a time-lapse camera placed on the seafloor during the drilling of a Hurricane Energy oil well off the coast of Shetland in autumn 2019. Hurricane Energy supported the project, as part of SERPENT (Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership using Existing iNdustrial Technology), an international collaboration established by NOC in 2003 between offshore oil and gas companies and ocean researchers.

Dr Andrew Gates, NOC Research Fellow and Head of SERPENT, said, “This project is an important example of how we can understand industrial impacts to the ocean by partnering with industry. Working with industry gives access to sites during real industrial operations that would otherwise be closed to researchers and allows up-close observation of impacts on the surrounding marine environment.”

This research supports our commitment to pursue a deeper understanding of the ocean and life beneath the waves, aligned to the UN Ocean Decade’s goal to secure and protect ocean resources and ecosystems.

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