Habitat Closures Will Protect Globally-Unique Sponge Grounds

June 8, 2013

Globally-Unique Aggregations
Vazella Pourtalesi is a rare, fragile and structure-forming species of glass sponge that is known to exist in only three locations worldwide: the Gulf of Mexico, the Azores, and in Canada. It is only here, on Nova Scotia’s eastern Scotian Shelf, that large aggregations of Vazella Pourtalesi have formed globally-unique sponge grounds. In comparison, Vazella Pourtalesi found in the Gulf of Mexico and the Azores exist only as individuals or in small aggregations.

Sponge grounds are created when many sponges grow in the same area, particularly larger sponges like Vazella Pourtalesi. The grounds provide significant deep-sea habitat, and enhance species diversity and abundance.

In an effort to help conserve and protect these unique sponge grounds, they will receive protection under Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Policy for Managing the Impacts of Fishing on Sensitive Benthic Areas. As such, the two areas on the eastern Scotian Shelf that contain the most Vazella Pourtalesi will be closed to bottom-contact fishing.

The closures will amount to 259 square kilometres of the sponge ground’s 8,000 square kilometre distribution range. Fishing with drags; traps; barrels; bottom-set trawls, longlines and gillnets; and any other type of fishing gear that contacts the sea floor will be prohibited. Gear that does not come into contact with the sea floor, such as purse seines, and pelagic longlines and gillnets, may still be used.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Sensitive Benthic Areas Policy is part of the Department’s commitment under the United Nations to identify and protect vulnerable marine ecosystems in domestic waters. The Policy’s objective is to reduce the impacts of fishing on sensitive benthic habitats, or avoid serious or irreversible harm to sensitive marine habitat, communities, and species.

Benthic habitats, composed of species living on or under the sea floor, are essential components of Canada’s oceans environments. They provide habitat and food web support; are an important source of biodiversity; and they support many aquatic species that are important to Canadians and our economy.

Impacts
Sponges are slow-growing, primitive aquatic animals that live attached to the sea floor.As such, they can be adversely affected by human activities such as fishing. Slow growth rates, longevity, variable recruitment, and habitat-limiting factors also make them particularly vulnerable to direct physical impacts and limit recovery.
Researchers have discovered damage tothe Scotian Shelf concentrations of Vazella pourtalesi from such impacts.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been conducting research in offshore waters to identify unique ecosystems and deep water species for a number of years. Starting in 2002, the Department has implemented conservation measures under both the Fisheries Act and the Oceans Act to protect deep-sea corals in the Gully Marine Protected Area (2004), the Lophelia Conservation Area (2004), and in the Northeast Channel Coral Conservation Area (2002).

Images of Vazella Pourtalesi

Vazella Pourtalesi

Vibrant Vazella Pourtalesi with associated redfish. Their upright barrel shape and body cavity give them the nickname "Russian Hats".

Vazella Pourtalesi

A crab seeks refuge inside the barrel of Vazella Pourtalesi.

Vazella Pourtalesi

A group of Vazelle Pourtalesi sponges provide shelter for a redfish.

map

Map and coordinates of the sponge closures on the eastern Scotian Shelf.

Sambro Bank Vazella Closure (62 km2) 

  • 43 56' 00'' N  63 07' 00'' W
  • 43 56' 00'' N  63 03' 00'' W
  • 43 54' 00'' N  63 00' 00'' W
  • 43 50' 00'' N  63 07' 00'' W

Emerald Vazella Closure (197 km2)

  • 44 20' 00'' N  62 40' 00'' W
  • 44 20' 00'' N  62 35' 30'' W
  • 44 15' 00'' N  62 32' 00'' W
  • 44 09' 00'' N  62 32' 00'' W
  • 44 09' 00'' N  62 40' 00'' W

News release: Minister MacKay Announces Support to Canada’s Unique Marine Habitat on World Oceans Day