Census Reveals Sea's Mysteries
By Cristina Hernández*
Ten Latin American countries are participating in a global marine census that in its first phase uncovered some 500 new fish species. The leaders of the project explained to Tierramérica how they are unearthing the best-kept secrets of the oceans.
SAN FRANCISCO, USA - Hundreds of scientists from 53 countries -- including 10 Latin American nations -- have completed the first phase of a global marine census aimed at revealing the mysteries of the millenniums-old species in the oceans' depths, including previously unimaginable habitats.
The ambitious Census of Marine Life (CoML), which is to continue until 2010, presented its first report last week in Washington.
Since they began three years ago, the international team of scientists has created a database of 15,304 fish species. An estimated 5,000 more await discovery, and the number of marine life forms could very well surpass two million.
The census involves 300 scientists and has a budget of a billion dollars, financed in large part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The first report is a review of current knowledge of marine biodiversity and the results of the preliminary efforts.
The presentation of the first phase included images of the ocean depths never seen before, such as vibrant ecosystems located at a depth of 4,500 meters, where no human explorers had never ventured before and long thought to be barren.
“The main goal of the census is to determine marine species abundance and to understand how it changes with time”, Frederick Grassle, of Rutgers University in the United States and chairman of the CoML scientific steering committee, told Tierramérica.
“We are looking forward to obtaining a taxonomic encyclopedia of marine life”, he said.
One of the most important findings so far, says the report, is that off the Atlantic coast of Angola, there is “an environment with more species per area than in any other known aquatic environment on Earth. About 80 percent of the collected species were new to science”.
CoML consists of four areas: history of marine animal populations, future of these populations, the ocean biogeographic information system (OBIS) and field projects.
Due to the monumental scope of the initiative, it has run into many challenges.
“The main obstacle is try to have a basic plan”, Ron O'Dor, chief scientist for the census, told Tierramérica.
“We can’t find everything, but we can do a good job with the new technologies and excitement towards the project”, said the Canadian scientist.
From 500 to 1,000 years of information about the world's oceans are being studied to create an overview of marine populations prior to the explosion of fishing by human communities around the globe.
This is to help predict variations in marine populations with respect to environmental changes and human activities.
“With the available information we want to try to model ecosystem processes in context of what existed”, said Grassle.
The census is utilizing the latest technology in exploring the seas, and the data produced are fed into the OBIS, which will be an electronic catalogue of public information for educational purposes.
South America is represented by a committee of all countries in the region with coastline. The committee's constitutive meeting will take place in November in Brazil.
"One of the achievements for Latin American will be that available information from our countries will be shared globally through a South American OBIS," says Chilean Victor Ariel Gallardo, a member of the CoML scientific committee and director of the oceanography research center at the University of Concepcion.
The census will give the global community greater knowledge of the ocean's resources for its exploitation as well as conservation.
For example, one of the discoveries of the first three years of the project is that the habitat of the Pacific leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), an endangered species, has reached a critical state in the eastern Pacific. The report states that the goal will be to help fisheries avoid the turtle's habitat.
"Marine resources have been subject to ongoing exploitation, in parallel to the development of human populations," said Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
"Certain species might occupy key places in the food chain, and their reduction or disappearance could have broad impacts on the biological communities," said Bernal in a conversation with Tierramérica.
"We are killing the big fish at a greater rate than expected," said Grassle. "When top predators are pulled out from the chain system, all the system becomes very different."
One of the field projects in development, "Tagging Pacific Pelagics", will establish migration and behavior patterns of the big predators at the top of the food chain.
Microchips that can store information and also be tracked by satellite have been inserted in whales, sharks, sea turtles and tuna in the northern Pacific.
Before, these species were only spotted when they came to the sea surface. Now it is known that they travel vast distances. Knowledge of their migrations will shed light on the ecosystems that they visit.
The results of the CoML could lead to new pharmaceuticals, as well as redefine the conservation of marine species, and how the fishing industry operates.
What is the balance after the first three years of the census? “Around a thousand scientists have expressed interest in participating in the project,” says O'Dor. “This has given us more confidence to move forward.”
* * Cristina Hernández is a Tierramérica contributor.