Research banner

Centre for

Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology

From the shoreline to the deep ocean, tackling issues from pure ecology
and physiology to aquaculture, marine spatial planning and conservation.

Johanne Vad

Johann 2

Johanne's Project: Environmental assessment of deep-water sponge fields in relation to oil and gas activity: A west of Shetland case study

Constituting the phylum Porifera, sponges are filter-feeding organisms, proven to perform a wide range of ecological functions.  However they still remain largely under-studies.  Widely distributed and diverse, they can form high density fields, supporting complex macrofaunal communities and can also be host to an array of microorganisms including bacteria, archaea, fungi, diatoms or, in shallow-waters, microalgae.

Deep-water sponge fields are now considered as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs) and Ecologically and Biolocially Significant Areas (ESBAs).  Their sensitivity to oil extraction activities in the Noeth East Atlantic where sponges are present in the vicinty of deep-water operations therefore needs to be investigated.

Johanne's project includes three main objectives:

  1. Complete visual surveys of sponge density and occurence in the vicinity of BP's installations west of Shetland;
  2. Conduct experimental exposures to determine sponge response to oil/oil dispersant mixtures; and
  3. Analyse microbial symbionts iof deep-water sponges to test for the presence of oil-degrading taxa via CARD-FISH (Catalysed Reporter Deposition and Fluorescence In-Situ Hybridisation) protocols.

This project is part of the NERC CDT in Oil and Gas and field work will be conducted in collaboration with BP. who will provide access to their offshore vessels and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to survey and carefully sample deep-water sponges. 

Alongside its purely scientific objectives, the project will produce a series of new recommendations to the oil and gas industry on the impact of their activities on deep-sea sponges and what measures should be adopted in the event of accidental oil release at depth.


Prof. Murray Roberts

Dr Tony Gutierrez

Dr Mark Hartl

Project Funders


British Geological Survey (BGS)

Oil and Gas UK
Location:School of Life Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Riccarton Campus, Edinburgh, EH14 4AS