The HERMIONE project

Main scientific results

Project impact and use

The HERMIONE project set out to investigate ecosystems at critical sites on Europe’s deep-ocean margin including submarine canyons, seamounts, cold seeps, open slopes and deep basins. Even these remote areas are being affected by man, either through the indirect impacts of climate change or directly through exploitation of deep-sea resources. Urgent questions were addressed such as the impact of climate change on deep-sea ecosystems, changes expected in deep-sea ecosystem functioning, effects of man’s impact, and how can we adapt or mitigate these so as to use the oceans in a sustainable manner? The project included scientists from a range of disciplines who researched the natural dynamics and interconnections of ecosystems as well as how these contribute to the goods and services we rely on, and how they are affected by natural and anthropogenic change. A series of complex experiments were set up and some were connected with long-term monitoring of sensitive environments. A major aim of HERMIONE was to use the knowledge gained during the project to contribute to EU environmental policies. This information can be used to create effective management plans that will help to protect our oceans for the future.

The objectives of HERMIONE were:

  • To investigate the dimensions, distribution and interconnection of deep-sea ecosystems;
  • To understand changes in deep-sea ecosystems related to key factors including climate change, human impacts and the impact of large-scale episodic events;
  • To understand the biological capacities and specific adaptations of deep-sea organisms, and investigate the importance of biodiversity in the functioning of deep-water ecosystems;
  • To provide stakeholders and policy-makers with scientific knowledge to support deep-sea governance aimed at the sustainable management of resources and the conservation of ecosystems.

Our scientists were able to obtain a large amount of shiptime, largely funded outside of the project by National funds. There were 93 research cruises of which 69 were longer than 5 days and in total HERMIONE had access to 1094 days of shiptime. The data has been used by 103 PhD and 71 MSc students, all of whom have benefited by being part of a large scientific community. We have provided training for these students in a range of scientific and soft skills, and many of them have had opportunity to participate in the research cruises.

The legacy of the project is to have contributed much needed data on the complexity of deep-sea ecosystems that is already being used in the international context to make laws to regulate the deep-water fishing industry, and to feed into the process of determining Marine Protected areas and Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas. We have also created a community of scientists who now routinely work together in multidisciplinary efforts to understand the remarkable deep-sea biome and its vast diversity of habitat and life.

One of the issues in deep-sea research is how to get the message across to the wider scientific community as well as the increasingly broad range of stakeholders. We have tackled this in many ways, including work with the European Environment Agency to produce a collection of Eye on Earth-based Map Books presenting case studies on human impacts. These are available via the internet in a simple and appealing format. Another initiative to bring marine issues to the attention of a wide cross section of the community has been the production a children’s book “Message in a Bottle” with a simple message about human impact in the deep sea. This book has gained massive interest – so much so that the Total Foundation agreed to publish it in French. Even for the smallest forms of deep-sea life new teaching material is provided by animated visualizations of bacteria inhabiting chemosynthetic ecosystems and influencing the seafloor chemistry.

Main scientific highlights

Climate driven change.

We have shown that cold-water corals (CWC) have responded to warming climates since the last ice age by migrating northwards at high speed in the N Atlantic. In the Mediterranean CWC are at their environmental tolerance limit and are not widespread. Increased warming in the Mediterranean, and expansion of mid-water oxygen minimum zones in the Atlantic might decrease the range of suitable habitats for CWC and, thus, reduce their overall abundance. Furthermore, ocean warming and sea ice retreat in the Fram Strait is accompanied by substantial changes in the carbon pump as well as in benthic community compositions.

Anthropogenic impact.

Our data show that marine litter is present in all geographic regions and all studied habitats. The highest quantities were found in the deep Mediterranean Sea, but even at the Arctic margins deep-sea littering was found to increase considerably in the past decade. The HERMIONE project produced a standard protocol for logging litter data for future scientific use.

Detailed surveys in La Fonera Canyon, NE Spain, have shown that bottom trawling has a major impact on the seabed by smoothing the topography and removing the unconsolidated surface sediment. This leads to sediment flows that enter deeper unfished areas, where they deposit suffocating the existing seabed faunas. Hence the area impacted by fishing is much greater than the area actually fished.

Episodic events.

A unique data set from the North Catalan coastline showed how in December 2008 one of the most extreme coastal storms of the last decades rapidly impacted the deep-sea ecosystem. The storm led to the transport downslope of large amounts of coarse shelf sediment, which abraded and buried benthic communities and carried with it large amounts of organic carbon that was subsequently sequestered in the deep basin.

With benthic observatories, an eruption of a mud volcano characterized by dynamic gas-hydrate reservoirs was recorded and effects on deep-sea ecosystems investigated.

Ecosystem distribution/interconnection.

Our new data contradicts the model that marine populations are demographically open over large distances. We found that microbial communities in general, populations of echinoderms in the N. Atlantic, and the deep-water shark (Centroscymnus. Coelolepis) in the Mediterranean Sea show distinct differences to neighbouring populations in adjacent areas. These results are extremely important for fishery management as well as conservation issues, especially in intensively exploited regions such as the Mediterranean.

Biological capacity of marine organisms.

We have begun to understand the impressive entanglement of eukaryotic, prokaryotic and virus kingdoms that massively influence the adaptation of many deep-sea invertebrates by biological interaction. We can now show the feedback influence of gene expression between invertebrates and bacterial compartments. We have mapped hundreds of thousands of genes expressed in response to various environmental stressors such as hypoxia, high sulphur concentrations or immunologic reactions.

Biodiversity supporting ecosystem function.

We have shown that cold-water corals (CWC) might perform significant carbon cycling. Oxygen uptake rates showed a significant turnover (~25%) of the annual shelf carbon export in the Norwegian Sea. NE Atlantic models indicate a direct coupling of a 600 m deep-water coral community to the surface productivity with the coral mounds inducing a “pump” for vertical and direct transfer of fresh organic matter from the surface toward the coral mound.

A study on the Nazaré Canyon (NE Atlantic) found that deposit-feeding holothurians host prokaryotes in their guts producing highly diversified enzymes to degrade a wide range of organic polymers. Furthermore, we have identified how environmental variations in space and time are reflected in the composition and activity of benthic bacteria, and how these effect the functions of chemosynthetic environments.

Potential impacts and use of the HERMIONE project results

The results of HERMIONE are very diverse and include 170 peer-reviewed papers published or in press, 181 articles published in the popular press and 761 presentations contributed at conferences. It is impossible to summarise all of this scientific work so here we concentrate on the socio-economic impact and wider societal implications of HERMIONE.

One of the aims of HERMIONE was to provide stakeholders and policy-makers with scientific knowledge to support deep-sea governance aimed at the sustainable management of resources and the conservation of ecosystems. Although our many scientific papers carry the information in peer reviewed form this is frequently inaccessible to policy makers and so we have made many efforts to close the science-policy gap by making direct links with policy makers. We have held a number of meetings in Brussels at both DG Mare and DG Environment where we have presented our results and engaged in a dialogue. We have also held dedicated Science Policy Panel meetings in both 2010 and 2012 where a small group of scientists from HERMIONE have engaged with representatives from DG Mare, DG Environment and DG Research for a whole day of discussions. These meetings have also involved senior representatives from the European Environment Agency, JPI Oceans, the European Platform for Biodiversity Research, The Mediterranean Science Commission CIESM, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature IUCN, the Marine Conservation Institute (Washington), the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, the Marine Board-ESF and the European Bureau for Conservation and Development. In these discussions we presented the most recent and relevant findings of HERMIONE and discussed them in an open forum with potential users. These meetings that began during the HERMES project have been a great success and should form a model for other large EU projects.

The HERMIONE results have proved to be very timely and important to ongoing discussions within the EC (revision of the Common Fisheries Policy) and at the United Nations with regard to the impacts of bottom trawling. Results have been presented to the EU Commissioner responsible for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (Maria Damanaki); to the Fisheries Attachés at the Permanent Representations to the EU; to the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission and to the Joint Regional Advisory Council for Fisheries. Results from HERMIONE on the impacts of bottom fishing in the deep-sea have been presented to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2009, and at the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea in New York in June 2011, and at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2011 where deep-water fishing resolutions 61/105 and 64/72 were debated. The results of HERMIONE were also used in the joint OSPAR/NEAFC/CBD Scientific Workshop on the identification of Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas (EBSAs) in September 2011. At this meeting attended by 3 HERMIONE partners the whole of the Hatton Rockall Bank and Basin in the NE Atlantic was proposed as an EBSA.

Some key findings of HERMIONE that are being used in refining deep-sea fisheries policies are:

  1. Work on the inventory of deep-water fish species in the Porcupine Seabight, where populations before and after heavy fishing effort have been compared and the total area where fish populations have been reduced has been calculated as 2.7 times the fished area.
  2. The mapping of large areas of seabed on the Catalan margin that have been sculpted and smoothed by bottom trawling, with each trawl setting off sediment flows that deposit downslope where they smother the seabed. Thus the area impacted by the fishery is much larger than the fished area.
  3. An assessment of the human footprint in a large area of the NE Atlantic that shows bottom trawling to have a much larger impact than all other human activities combined.