Blue Ocean Institute



Blue Ocean Research & Conservation

Discovering the Ocean

Our scientific research has focused  recently on an often overlooked yet ecologically important part of many ecosystems–sponges. Numbering over 8000 species,  they are common to many aquatic habitats from the Ross Shelf in Antarctica, Lake Baikal in Russia, rocky reefs in South Africa, to coral reefs throughout the Caribbean.

Sponges are critical to coral reef survival. Sponges filter and clean the water, provide shelter for commercially important species like juvenile lobsters, and are eaten by many fish and turtles. On many coral reefs, sponges outnumber corals, with sponges providing three-dimensional structure that creates habitat and refuge for thousands of species. Because of their large size and kaleidoscope colors, sponges help fuel the popular and lucrative diving and tourism industries.

As climate change results in warmer, more acidic oceans, all marine life is potentially affected. It is well-known that coral health declines under these conditions, but the effect on sponge growth and survival is unknown. Significant declines in sponge health and biomass would be catastrophic to coral reefs, reducing water quality and severely impacting thousands of species from symbiotic microbes to foraging hawksbill turtles. A major loss of sponges would not only negatively impact marine life, but also local communities that depend on reefs for coastal protection and food.

Blue Ocean’s research scientist, Dr. Alan Duckworth, studied the effects of warmer, more acidic waters on the sponge Cliona celata, which bores into the shells of scallops and oysters, weakening and eventually killing them. Alan hypothesized that because climate change will result in shellfish having weaker shells, these sponges could cause greater losses of shellfish. This study has been done in collaboration with Dr. Bradley Peterson of Stony Brook University.

Alan’s other area of study was the first climate change experiment focused on tropical sponges. It investigated the effects of warmer, more acidic water on the growth, survival, and chemistry of several Caribbean coral reef sponges. This study was based at the Discovery Bay Marine Lab in Jamaica and chemical analysis of sponge samples was completed by Dr. Lyndon West from Florida Atlantic University.

Putting Teeth in Shark Conservation

The goal of this fellowship is to help small, island nations by strengthening their ability to identify illegal shark fishing and enforce recently established shark sanctuaries. It will help provide much needed scientific research, training, outreach and DNA-testing tools which can then be used to help protect valuable marine sanctuaries worldwide.

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