In what's being described as the world's first global ocean census, marine researchers have compiled nearly 30 million observations of 120,000 ocean species. Scientists participating in the Census of Marine Life documented a surprisingly diverse habitat -- but also uncovered some worrisome trends.
Last week, Dr. Paul Snelgrove of the Ocean Sciences Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland, answered my questions about the census.
How was the ocean census conducted and who was involved in the process?
The census was a global initiative of 2,700 scientists from more than 80 nations around the world who organized into 17 projects that dealt with different types of ecosystems and types of organisms. Each of the projects involved many nations, and support for the research came from governments and foundations within these nations.
Why, in 2010, are we just completing the first ocean census?
Scientists have studied ocean biodiversity for more than a century, but without coordination. This means the methodologies used, the questions asked and the conclusions drawn have been difficult to compare and combine to produce a global perspective. The oceans cover 70 percent of the planet, which makes a global Census of Marine Life a huge undertaking that no single nation could take on. The census has brought together experts from around the world who bring knowledge and access to their waters.
What's the most surprising piece of data collected during the census?
The most surprising data was the richness of diversity. In some environments, like coral reefs, we expected to see this, and in some groups of organisms, such as mollusks, we knew there were many unknown species. But we were all greatly surprised by the diversity we found in environments like the Southern Ocean and the spectacular diversity of microbes that none of us really expected. We were also surprised at the degree to which different parts of the oceans are interconnected by animals that move large distances across ocean basins and vertically through the water. This connectedness tells us that activities in one location may have significant consequences for other locations.
What's the most worrisome?
The most worrisome discovery is that many species have declined much more than we had realized, often beginning their decline long before any of us were born. Mostly, these are species we have targeted for hunting and fisheries, though some are a collateral effect. But at the same time we also know that technology today allows much more rapid depletion than it did a hundred years ago, and we can decimate environments and populations in a fraction of the time it once took.
Many of the declines we found were related to fisheries, in some cases from excessive removal, in other cases from habitat destruction, bycatch of non-target species and cascading effects through the food web. We expect that climate change will become a more significant player in the future, through its effects on ocean temperature and acidity.
Why was it important to complete this ocean census?
The oceans are clearly changing, and in most cases for the worse. In many cases we may lose species before we know they even exist. We don't know which of those species are vital to ecosystems and which ones are not, so the future health of the oceans is difficult to predict. Now we have a baseline of knowledge against which we can measure future change, and predict into the future. Knowledge is power in that it may allow us to prepare for change or possibly even avoid those changes.
What will you do with the data collected in the census?
All of the data from the census is available on the Internet, freely accessible to whoever wants to view it. The Ocean Biogeographic Information System now contains almost 30 million data records on life in the oceans. We expect this database will continue to expand for the foreseeable future.
When will you follow up with the next ocean census?
Some of the census activities will continue at a smaller scale through national programs or smaller projects that are still winding down. But there is still much to be done. We believe that for every species we know there are perhaps three to four we don't know, and that doesn't include the microbes. So once the census community of scientists has a chance to catch their breath, we will think about how to come together internationally. Funding is always the greatest challenge, and core funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation made the first census possible. We need similar core funding to organize a follow up census, though the enthusiasm and need for such an effort is very strong.
Image: Dr. Paul Snelgrove
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com