The Census of Marine Life is a global network of researchers in more than 80 nations engaged in a 10-year scientific initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans. The world’s first comprehensive census of the past, present, and future of life in the oceans was released in October 2010.
The Census of Marine Life Executive Summary
In a world characterized by crowded shorelines, oceanic pollution, and exhausted fisheries, only an encompassing global marine census can probe the realities of the declines or global changes in ocean resources and the extent of our ignorance. Archives spanning centuries, technologies empowering exploration, and communications connecting scientists open opportunities for such a census. In the year 2000, the Census of Marine Life began, led by an International Scientific Steering Committee of experts in diverse forms of life, habitats, and technologies.
Mission: Assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine species from the past to the present, and project future marine life.
Scope: Global marine life since fishing became ecologically important, from icy polar to warm tropical waters, from tidal zones shared by humans to obscure trenches 10,000 meters deep, from microscopic plankton in the light and sea lions plunging into the dark to worms in abyssal sediments, from organisms shifting on the slopes of seamounts to ones tolerating fiery oceanic vents, the 5 percent of the ocean that is fairly regularly visited and the 95 percent of the ocean whose life is largely unexplored.
Strategy: Through 2010, scientists worldwide organized what is known and unknown about life in the oceans and broadened our knowledge of the unknown through new research. Three large questions defined the tasks of the Census: What did live in the oceans? What does live in the oceans? What will live in the oceans? Globally, scientists that collaborated in Census mined historical and environmental archives, typically since about the year 1500, to write a History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP), quantifying how fishing and environmental fluctuations changed what lived in the oceans. Fourteen cooperative international Ocean Realm Field Projects as well as affiliated national efforts explored the diversity, distribution, and abundance of what lives in six ocean realms from tidal zones to deep trenches. The observers in the field projects, as well as HMAP, deposited their data in the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), a global georeferenced database about marine species, accessible on the web with tools for visualizing relations among species and environments. The Future of Marine Animal Populations (FMAP) network integrated the extensive Census-generated data in mathematical models to predict how environmental and human influences will change what will live in the oceans.
Progress & Completion: Commenced in 2000, the Census implemented its program in several (not mutually exclusive) phases: program development, partnership building, and project initiation; globalization and the formation of national and regional committees; integration, synthesis, and commuications. More than 2,700 researchers from 80 nations collaborated in the Census. The Census released world’s first comprehensive baseline of marine biodiversity — past, present, and future — in October 2010. See these results in scientific publications and through the Census portal (www.coml.org).
Legacies: The Census leaves legacies beyond 2010: (1) new views of life in the oceans; (2) a sustained, dynamic OBIS that serves the needs of a variety of user groups; (3) proven technologies and approaches that can be implemented in monitoring programs and ocean and coastal observation systems; (4) increased public interest in the oceans and marine life and support for ongoing research; (5) “human capital” or networks of marine biodiversity scientists around the world; (6) societal benefits by way of a baseline against which future change can be measured, contributions to other assessments, and application of the information.
Some key overview documents from the Census Program:
- The Census of Marine Life: Goals, scope and strategy (SCI. MAR. 69 (Suppl. 1): 2005)
- How to Census Marine Life Ocean realm field projects (SCI. MAR. 69 (Suppl. 1): 2005)