New Zealand scientists discovered thousands of bleached sea sponges in May of this year, in cold waters off the country’s southwestern coast. Further findings showed the damage was far worse, with millions — possibly tens of millions — of sea sponges affected throughout the Fiordland region.
“This is one of the most abundant sponges in Fiordland, and so it’s a really wide-scale event,” said James Bell, a marine biology professor from New Zealand’s Victoria University.
Bell, who led the team responsible for spotting the initial bleaching event last month, told CNN that despite the extensive mass bleaching, some sponges were still alive and consuming oxygen.
“This region was so abundant and rich in marine life and it was almost like a white graveyard when we discovered it, it was really devastating and traumatic,” he said. “We are able to conduct experiments on board our boat to try and understand how affected the sponges were by warmer temperatures. Unfortunately a lot of them were already very unhealthy and stressed.”
“They pump out large volumes of water and capture tiny particles, bacteria, plankton and algae and also recycle carbon on the sea floor,” Bell said. “They also provide shelter for marine creatures and increase habitat areas of the sea floor. They are very underappreciated creatures.”
Oceans heating up at record speed
Last year was the hottest on record for the world’s oceans for the third year in a row, placing massive additional stress on marine ecosystems.
The sea creatures play an important role in marine ecosystems and scientists say their loss could affect millions of other marine animals.
“The mass bleaching event highlights again how dramatically oceans are changing due to global warming and climate change,” he said. “It should serve as a wake-up call. We need climate action now, not in 10 or 15 years because by then it would be too late and we’d have lost all ecosystems and species.”