Where animal telemetry meets sponges

by | Dec 11, 2020 | News

The maintenance of ocean infrastructures for monitoring and research is expensive and time-consuming. For those who maintain such infrastructures—including our team at the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN)—deriving the maximum value from these investments is an important trust, especially where public funding is invested in the platforms.

For OTN, it is important to foster connections and form partnerships with institutions and individuals to leverage OTN resources and help meet broader research, education, or industry goals in Canada and around the world. OTN was launched in 2008 with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to create a global electronic telemetry system to document the movements and survival of aquatic animals and link the movements to environmental conditions. OTN is headquartered at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. OTN-affiliated researchers primarily use acoustic telemetry, which involves tagging animals with acoustic tags, releasing them, and following their movements and survival through detections of the tags on acoustic receivers in key ocean and freshwater locations around the globe.

OTN operates approximately 2000 moored receivers of its own, including equipment loaned to researchers around the globe to foster connections to existing receiver arrays and create a truly global tracking coverage. Researchers using OTN infrastructure generate new knowledge (fundamental science) and assist in providing applied results to support fisheries management and planning for sustainable development of the ocean (a.k.a. “Blue Growth”).

OTN receiver moorings are mostly fitted with acoustic releases and flotation collars, placed near the ocean floor, and serviced on a regular basis. They provide habitat for a diversity of encrusting flora and fauna, which can be a major problem for us if enough biomass forms to occlude the equipment or prevent it from surfacing when an acoustic release is triggered. We had, for some time, been reaching out to researchers studying biodiversity or biofouling about whether samples of the flora and fauna from these moorings would be of interest, however, we received no tangible expression of interest until we found the Horizon 2020 SponGES project.

OTN’s Halifax Line—our longest acoustic receiver array and comprised of > 250 individual moorings—spans more than 200 kilometers from Halifax to the Scotian Shelf break. This array provides a gate to detect acoustically tagged animals moving along the shelf, and it became of interest to sponge researchers when it was realized that it passes through an area identified by scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) as prime habitat for the Russian Hat sponge (Vazella pourtalesii).

I first learned of the Horizon 2020 SponGES project and its work on Russian Hat sponges from an early morning radio interview with one of the principal investigators, BIO’s Ellen Kenchington. The goal of the international SponGES consortium is to develop an integrated ecosystem-based approach to preserve and sustainably use deep-sea sponge ecosystems of the North Atlantic Ocean. The interview I heard with Ellen was live from a cruise on the CCGS Hudson, where she and her team were using a deep diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to examine the habitat of the sponge grounds off Halifax and to bring live animals to the surface—a tedious and difficult procedure that can obtain only a few specimens at a time. Realizing that mobilizing the Hudson and the ROV on a regular basis for sponge work would not be possible due to competing demands, I reached out to the BIO team to see if they would be interested in examining some of our Halifax Line moorings for sponges as we serviced them. They leapt at the chance, and the first mooring the OTN technical team brought to the surface was thick with sponges.

Tissue samples from the animals have been distributed throughout the consortium to enable a variety of reproduction and molecular genetics studies, and whole live animals have been returned to the laboratory where tests can be conducted under controlled conditions. While the science is still ongoing, important new knowledge from these samples is already becoming available to the science community and to managers and policy makers dealing with the conservation of sponge grounds.

OTN now keeps in regular contact with the BIO team to maintain an ongoing flow of sponge samples for their work and to be distributed through them to the international community. One group’s biofouling problem is another’s treasure trove of scientific opportunity. The work of the SponGES team has added significant value to the OTN platform, and we look forward to continuing to support sponge researchers into the future.

Originally published by Fred Whoriskey, executive director at OTN, for Ocean Best Practices.