“The loss and the damage of gorgonian forests could have consequences for the entire ecosystem and affect economic sectors, such as fishing”


Maria Montseny is an environmental biologist with a PhD in Marine Ecology. Her research focuses on the conservation and ecological restoration of deep marine ecosystems. Currently, she is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences of the University of Barcelona (UB). She is part of the scientific team of the LIFE Ecorest project. In addition to embarking on oceanographic campaigns, she works with the fishers participating in the project to restore and return to marine protected areas the organisms they rescue from fishing nets.

What role do gorgonians, corals, sponges and other sessile organisms play in the ecosystem? Why are they so important?

Gorgonians, corals, sponges, and other benthic organisms are essential to the ecosystem. Thanks to their structure, they provide the ideal habitat and shelter for many different species. They form gorgonian forests where larval and juvenile stages of fish of species of commercial interest, such as lobsters, are concentrated. In addition, these organisms play a key role in nutrient cycling. Thus, the loss and deterioration of gorgonian forests can affect the entire ecosystem and even affect economic sectors, such as fisheries.

What is unique about gorgonian forests in the Mediterranean and, in particular, those that inhabit Catalonia in the scope of intervention of the project? What is the state of it?

The gorgonian forests in the project areas are located on the shelf and the continental slope, between 40 and 550 meters deep. These forests are biodiversity hotspots that concentrate a wide variety of species, some vulnerable, threatened, and slow-growing species.  However, these areas have also been affected by decades of intense fishing exploitation, which has deteriorated the conservation status of gorgonian forests and made protection measures necessary.

Part of your research has focused on evaluating how these populations evolve, both naturally and by implementing ecological restoration measures to accelerate recovery processes. What results have you obtained?

Given the importance of these populations, monitoring their conservation status is crucial to predicting significant changes in the ecosystem or assessing the effectiveness of restoration measures. Monitoring these deep populations is a challenge for marine science and technology. In addition, gorgonians and corals are organisms with exceptionally long life cycles and slow growth, which makes it difficult to detect a significant improvement in a few years.

Even so, thanks to the images obtained with Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), we have detected the beginnings of recovery in marine protected areas where fishing activity was banned years ago, confirming the restoration technique’s success.

How do you think the LIFE ECOREST project can contribute to promoting this recovery? What are its strengths?

The LIFE ECOREST project contributes directly to recovering forests of gorgonians, sponges, and other benthic organisms through two main pathways: passive restoration helps create marine protected areas where fishing is banned, and active restoration returns to these protected areas the benthic organisms that fishermen bycatch.

One of the project’s strengths is the participation of a key stakeholder, the fishing sector. Restoration and conservation actions must include the protagonists who work daily in these environments, making them participants in their protection.

Another highlight is the simplicity and effectiveness of the restoration technique used, known as the Badminton method. Unlike other techniques, and despite the difficulty of working in deep areas, this method is characterised by being economically affordable and applicable on a large spatial scale.

Why is the restoration methodology used in the project innovative?

The Badminton method is an innovative method for restoring gorgonian populations in deep environments, a field that is not as studied as in shallower habitats. Unlike other techniques used in deep restoration, this one does not require sophisticated technology, significantly reducing costs. In addition, it allows large restoration areas to be covered and involve the local fishing sector, making them participants in the entire restoration process.

What results would you highlight from the oceanographic campaigns you developed in the project from the University of Barcelona and the ICM-CSIC?

The scientific team of the ICM-CSIC and the University of Barcelona has carried out oceanographic campaigns that, in a preliminary evaluation, have made it possible to find differences between the areas where fishing is allowed and the protected areas, at least for a year. In the protected areas, indicators of recovery of the seabed and the settlement of some benthic species have been detected, evidencing the beginning of the ecosystem recovery.

On the other hand, it was possible to detect the first colonies that were returned with the Badminton method, confirming that they were in good condition. Continued monitoring and conservation efforts will be crucial to ensure these protected regions’ long-term success and promote the marine ecosystem’s overall health.

The fishers participating in the project have already begun to return to the sea specimens recovered in aquariums. What would you highlight about their work? How do you value the joint work between the fishing sector and the scientific community?

The task of the fishers in the project is very important since, on the one hand, they provide by rescuing the organisms to be restored and, on the other hand, they help us find them again in the protected areas. The joint work between scientists and the fishing sector is being enriched, highlighting the exchange of knowledge and experiences.

Fishers have been working in these environments for years and are aware that if they want a feasible economic sector, they must commit to recovering and maintaining the seabed’s conservation status.

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