Marine project gets millions in funding from the EU

Hans Tore Rapp will head the EU project SponGES. Mapping the North Atlantic sponge grounds could yield environmental as well as medicinal gains.

Rapp og Xavier
INTERNATIONAL AMBITIONS: Hans Tore Rapp and Joana R. Xavier anticipate that SponGES will contribute to the setting up of international agreements and strategic tools for preserving the sponge ecosystems of the North Atlantic.
Eivind Senneset

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Professor Hans Tore Rapp at the University of Bergen’s (UiB) Department of Biology is to co-ordinate the EU project Deep-sea Sponge Grounds EcosystemS of the North Atlantic (SponGES). An international team of researchers is to map and survey the sponge ground ecosystems in the North Atlantic.

“The objective is to build up a solid knowledge base that will allow us to preserve and at the same time enable the sustainable use and exploitation of the resources in sponge grounds areas. Sponge grounds are amongst the most diverse, ecologically and biologically significant and also vulnerable ecosystems of the deep sea,” explains Rapp.

The research project will receive EUR 10 million (approx. NOK 95 million) across a four-year period from the EU’s largest research programme, Horizon 2020 (H2020).

Will preserve the sponge

SponGES will develop an ecosystem-based approach towards the preservation and sustainable use of the deep-sea sponge field. This will be achieved through increased knowledge, innovation and the ability to foresee changes within the system.

“The only way to develop good conservation strategies for sponges is to have a good understanding of which species make up the ecosystem, where they are located and how they connect with each other,” says postdoctoral researcher Joana R. Xavier from the Department of Biology.

Xavier has administrative responsibility for the project and will make sure that the different research teams involved in the project deliver their results within the planned timeframe. She will also be conducting research herself on the diversity and genetic variations among sponges.

An overlooked ecosystem

The sponge-dominated deep-sea environments are increasingly regarded as important ecosystems contributing to marine sustainability, which ultimately is a benefit to humans.

“Sponge grounds are among the most overlooked marine ecosystems. This is the first time that such a large interdisciplinary research project has been set up to investigate them,” says Xavier.

The researchers will map the whole of the North Atlantic, from Portugal and Florida in the south and further north into the Arctic regions. The UiB-led project involves 18 partners in total, including the renowned Bedford Institute of Oceanography and Uppsala University.

Moving the research frontier

The EU’s evaluation of the project states that “the project will advance the research frontier and increase knowledge of sponge grounds and of their potential for technological development, and inform us of how they should be assessed with relation to the management of vulnerable natural areas and marine resources.”

“I believe that SponGES has the potential to force a paradigm shift in our understanding of biodiversity and of how it will be affected by future human activities in the marine environment,” says Xavier.“The project is, first and foremost, a pure research project,” says Rapp, ”but the research could also yield big environmental and medicinal gains.”