Environmental Status and Geomorphological Characterisation of Seven Black Coral Forests on the Sardinian Continental Shelf (NW Mediterranean Sea)

marine animal forest environmental status anthozoans ROV MSFD DPSIR


Marine animal forests are key mesophotic ecosystems that are under threat from increasing natural and human pressures. Despite the fact that various international agreements strive to preserve these fragile ecosystems, the environmental status of the majority of these animal-structured environments is unknown. Assessing their environmental status is the first step needed to monitor these essential habitats’ health over time and include them within conservation and protection frameworks, such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Based on Multibeam data and ROV footage, we characterized the geomorphological setting and evaluated the environmental status of seven black coral forests in the centre of the Western Mediterranean Sea, using the Mesophotic Assemblages Conservation Status (MACS) Index. The presence of two antipatharians, Antipathella subpinnata and Leiopathes glaberrima, characterized the seven investigated sites, dwelling on rocky substrate characterized by different environmental drivers (i.e., depth, slope of the substrate, terrain ruggedness, topographic positioning index, and aspect). From the combined evaluation of the associated benthic community status and the anthropogenic impacts affecting it, a “high” and “good” environmental status was assessed for five out of the seven studied black forests, with only two forests classified as having a “moderate” and “poor” status, respectively. Overall, our study showed a site-specific variability of mesophotic black coral forest status, explained by different biological community structures and environmental conditions mainly associated with morphological and anthropogenic factors.