Improving Gray Snapper Habitat: Sponge Restoration in Florida Bay

Florida Keys, Florida

Funded in FY20 through the FishAmerica Foundation

In recent decades, recurring algal blooms have affected large portions of the shallow waters of the Florida Keys. These blooms suck the oxygen out of the water, causing extensive sponge die-offs and turning once healthy areas into “sponge barrens” that no longer provide habitat for recreationally and economically important fin- and shellfishes such as gray snapper and spiny lobster. In response to this loss, habitat managers have begun to restore degraded seafloor communities by growing sponges in marine “nurseries” and transplanting them into areas in which they once thrived. The pilot project has shown promising results, but a large-scale effort is required to jump-start the natural process of sponge proliferation and ensure restored areas are truly sustainable over time.

To date, several thousand sponges have been propagated within a network of in-water sponge nurseries in the Florida Keys, led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). When transplanted onto sponge-barren seafloor, sponges produced by this method exhibit high growth and survival, and provide habitat for many fishes and invertebrates.

This project will restore the degraded nearshore sponge community of the Florida Keys with sponges grown within the FWC’s network of nurseries. Five thousand sponges will be planted in degraded sites, and the use of restoration sites by mobile fauna will be monitored.

A secondary objective of the project is to test the function of the marine soundscape in promoting recovery of the nearshore hard-bottom community. Many fishes and invertebrates use sound cues to recruit to hard-bottom habitat. A primary source of these cues in the hard-bottom community is the snapping shrimp that live within some sponges. Audio recordings of healthy sponge communities will be incorporated into this restoration effort to test if those sounds enhance recovery of the broader hard-bottom community.

Sponge Restoration Factsheet

Text and images provided by FL FWC.


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