Making Ocean Life Count

The sea holds more than 15,000 fish, more than 6,800 species of zooplankton, and microbes, the ocean’s smallest organisms, form a massive 90 percent of life in the ocean.

If all those numbers seem astonishing then think about this: most the sea creatures we know about live close to the surface: something that comes from below 2000 meters is about 50 times more likely to be new to science than one found at 50 meters.

Trying to understand just what lives in the world’s oceans — almost three quarters of the earth is covered by sea — is a decade-long job for the huge network of scientists in more than 70 nations who are compiling the Census of Marine Life.

We have barely skimmed the surface,” says Dr. J. Frederick Grassle of Rutgers University, who chairs the Census’s International Scientific Steering Committee. “Humans have explored less than five percent of the world’s oceans, and even where we have explored, life may have been too small to see. Thus, opportunities abound to discover species and increase our knowledge of abundance and distribution.”

Last year, the Census’s database grew to more than 5.2 million records of the location, date and depth at which 38,000 marine species were found, up from 1.1 million records and 25,000 species a year earlier. To help people understand just what all this means the scientists are building a cyberinfrastructure to organize what is known about this ocean’s life.

The database is still under construction but already a map has been produced from its 5.2 million records with red dots representing where marine species — form plankton to whales — can be found in, but there remain many patches of blue show where no samples at any depth have been recorded.

It will be, explains Dr. Dennis Gordon, from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research “an online ocean atlas that would do two things — you can click on any part of the sea in the world and ask what species are there and in what numbers or you can ask a question of any species and ask where in the sea is it and in what numbers.”

“The benefit of raw data is that anybody can use those data and anybody can therefore maybe come up with recognizing new patterns of whatever — of distribution maybe in relation to some environmental parameter or latitude or whatever like that.”

“In the end everybody is the beneficiary,” says Dr Gordon.

But the Census is not just looking at the life in the seas today but is also casting back to the history of the oceans and forwards to their future. “We are looking at past, present and future, basically,” says Dr Gordon.

Census researchers are compiling data on marine animal populations from the past 500 or so years — already they’ve found that as fishing technology changed in the 19th century, the size of landed cod decreased significantly. New Zealand researchers have proposed looking at the state of the ocean in pre[1]Maori times, pre-European times and at recent history of the ocean. Another group of researchers plans to develop models to help foresee life in the world’s oceans of tomorrow.

The Census of Marine Life started in 2000 and will finish in 2010.

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