Sponge reefs in the Queen Charlotte Basin, Canada: controls on distribution, growth and development

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Abstract

Sponge reefs in the Queen Charlotte Basin exist at 165–240 m depth within tidally influenced shelf troughs subject to near bottom current velocities of 25–50 cm s−1 where nutrient supply from coastal runoff is augmented by wind-induced upwelling of nutrient rich water from the adjacent continental slope. Large reef mounds to 21 m in elevation affect tidally driven bottom currents by deflecting water flows through extensive reef complexes that are up to 300 km2 in area. Three hexactinellid species construct reefs by building a siliceous skeletal framework through several frame-building processes. These sponge reefs exist in waters with 90 to 150 µM dissolved oxygen, a temperature range of 5.9 to 7.3°C and salinity of 33.2 to 33.9 ‰. Relatively high nutrient levels occur at the reef sites, including silica, which in bottom waters are typically >40 µM and may be up to 80 µM. A high dissolved silica level is potentially an important control on occurrence of these and other dense siliceous sponge populations. The sponge reefs are mainly confined to seafloor areas where exposed iceberg plough marks are common. Sediment accumulation rates are negligible on the relict, glacial surface where the reefs grow, and trapping of flocculated suspended particulate matter by hexactinosidan or framework skeleton hexactinellid sponges accounts for a large proportion of the reef matrix. Suspended sediment concentration is reduced within the nepheloid layer over reef sites suggesting efficient particle trapping by the sponges. The reef matrix sediments are enriched in organic carbon, nitrogen and carbonate, relative to surrounding and underlying sediments. The sponges baffle and trap suspended sediments from water masses, which in one trough have a residence time of approximately 6 days, ensuring a close association of the sponges with the bottom waters. The location of the reef complexes at the heads of canyons provide a means of regionally funnelling particulate material that sponges can trap to enrich their environment with organic carbon and biogenic silica. Like deepsea coral reefs, the sponge reefs are a remote and poorly known ecosystem that can present logistical challenges and survey costs. Also like deep-sea coral reefs, many of the hexactinosidan sponge reefs have been damaged or destroyed by the groundfish trawl fishery.