The Census of Marine Life and the Role
Address to the 5th International Aquarium
Musee Oceanographique, Monaco, 23 November
This URL: http://phe.rockefeller.edu/COML_Monaco/
Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan
Good afternoon and many thanks to the 5th International
Aquarium Congress for the chance to share with you, the leaders of the
international aquarium community, news of progress toward the implementation of
a scientific program to carry out a worldwide Census of Marine Life. Aquariums
have much to contribute to the Census and, in turn, the Census can help lift the
value of aquariums.
First, let me introduce myself. I am Jesse Ausubel, program
director for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation
located in New York City. The Sloan Foundation works with different parts of the
scientific community to try to bring to fruition important scientific programs.
About three years ago, several leading oceanographers approached the Foundation.
They wanted to begin a new international scientific program to assess and to
explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life. In brief,
they want to organize a worldwide Census of Marine Life (CoML). I speak to you
on behalf of the distinguished international Scientific Steering Committee (SSC)
that is now planning the program (see http://www.coml.org
Three main reasons motivate the Census of Marine Life (CoML).
The first is simply the chance for exciting discoveries about the world in which
we live. Much remains to be discovered about life in the oceans. For example,
ichthyologists have so far identified about 15,000 species of marine fishes.
They also believe about 5,000 species of marine fishes remain to be discovered.
The age of discovery in the oceans is not over.
The second reason for a Census is improved management of
marine resources. Big opportunities exist to improve management of fisheries and
other human uses of the oceans.
The third compelling reason for the CoML is the International
Convention on Biodiversity. For this Convention to become useful, good baseline
information on ecology is required. The present baseline information on marine
ecosystems for most of the world's oceans is weak. The CoML can help greatly to
create the needed baseline information.
A continuing series of international workshops, about 15 so
far, have defined the challenges for the Census and the ways they can be
addressed. Aquariums have already helped greatly in this process. Two of the
planning workshops were organized by Jerry Schubel and his colleagues at the New
England Aquarium, while one workshop was held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Research Institute and two at the Aquarium itself. The first meeting at the
Monterey Bay Aquarium settled definitively the Grand Challenges that the Census
should address. These are 1) What did live in the oceans? 2) What does live in
the oceans? 3) What will live in the oceans? The International Scientific
Steering Committee is now working hard to integrate the most valuable, feasible
ideas into a 10-year strategy and plan for the Census to answer these questions.
The draft strategy will soon be circulated to the various potential stakeholders
in the Census for review and comment. Let me share with the likely main
components of the program.
The historical component of the Census, addressing the history
of marine animal populations (HMAP), will try to create a picture of what lived
in the oceans before fishing become important, say 500 years ago, and how these
populations have changed. HMAP will try to create and make accessible time
series on marine animal populations. It will try to rescue and put in
electronic form historical data that could otherwise be lost. The Danish
environmental historian and Steering Committee member, Poul Holm, who chaired an
exciting workshop on HMAP in February 2000, has taken the lead in organizing the
network of researchers and institutions that will conduct this part of the
The history of marine animal populations is a blind spot in
environmental history that the combined efforts of historians, paleo-ecologists,
and ecosystem modelers can surely fill. We expect that the HMAP research during
the next 5-10 years will lead not only to compilations of statistics but to the
creation of beautiful visualizations of the marine environment in earlier
historical times. Imagine the visual re-creation of marine life as it may have
existed centuries ago in the Bay of Naples or in Tokyo Bay. As an American, I
would love to have a picture of the life in Massachusetts Bay around the year
1620 when the English settlers came. Exhibits about the history of marine
animal populations could be inspiring and influential, for example, in
considering goals for Marine Protected Areas. I find the reconstruction of the
oceans before fishing, or what we might call the primal ocean, one of the most
exciting parts of the Census.
The present component of the program, addressing what now
lives in the oceans, involves new field programs. The Steering Committee
believes that about half a dozen pilot programs are needed to demonstrate that
new technologies can make synoptic and synchronous measures of large ocean
areas. These pilot programs need to address diverse marine environments. Pilot
programs now under development address
a) the Gulf of Maine & Georges Bank. Marine populations
in this area are of course important for fisheries. Much surveying has been
done in this region, but we really do not know if we have the numbers right, so
the region provides an excellent chance for the demonstration, calibration, and
integration of new technologies.
b) the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and overlying deep water. These
areas exemplify the vast largely unexplored areas of the open ocean, and the
technological challenges to see deep and far.
c) vent and seep communities on the bottom of the North
Atlantic. Studies to date have examined only a few such communities and tended
to focus on a tiny area, say, a few square meters. Big questions pertain to the
numbers and distribution and diversity of these communities.
d) Pacific populations of large pelagic species, including
tunas, whales, seals, and sharks. A tremendously exciting opportunity exists to
describe what must live in the ocean at several trophic levels based on
obtaining a much more reliable and complete view of life at the top of the food
e) North Pacific and Gulf of Alaska salmon populations.
Remarkably, it is still largely unknown where salmon go when they leave their
f) diversity of near shore populations in the Western Pacific.
A classic yet unanswered question is how marine biological diversity changes
with latitudinal gradient. Steering Committee member Yoshihisa Shirayama is
leading an effort to answer this question with strict survey protocols that
would describe populations from the Bering Sea to New Zealand.
Eventually, there may be 30-40 field programs in diverse parts
of the world oceans, which, taken together, will form the Census and vastly
improve our knowledge of the diversity, distribution, and abundance of present
marine life. The selection of the field programs must rely on an improved
biogeography or stratification of the oceans on which scientists are now also
Obviously, the gaining of commitments, financial and
political, to conduct the field programs is the biggest step to make the Census
The prospective portion of the program, addressing what will
live in the oceans, requires improved models of ecosystems dynamics, attentive
both to trophic levels and questions at the species level. It is important to
note that such models can, in principle, work both backward and forward in time.
With appropriate data, they can help fill in the picture of what did live in the
oceans as well as what will live in the oceans.
A requirement for the CoML is an improved system for
absorbing, integrating, and accessing data about life in the oceans. Already we
are working to create an Ocean Biogeographical Information System (OBIS). The
idea of OBIS is that anyone anywhere at a computer can click on an area on a map
of the oceans and bring up information on what has been reported to live there.
The CoML may be said to have begun in a formal sense with the announcement in
May 2000 of eight grants totaling about 4 million US$ to create the OBIS, as
reported in Science
magazine, 2 June.
The grants, made by the Sloan Foundation in partnership with
the US National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research (ONR), and other
organizations belonging to the US National Ocean Partnership Program involve
researchers in more than 60 institutions in 15 countries. The idea is to evolve
OBIS cooperatively, worldwide. OBIS will be a distributed system, a system of
systems, also integrating and linking to geo-referenced databases for ocean
optics and other physical, chemical, and geological parameters. The initial
OBIS grants address overall system architecture as well as 5 species groups:
fishes, cephalopods, gelatinous zooplankton, mollusks, and corals and anemones.
OBIS aims to include all species groups. A September 2000 conference brought
together all the initial grantees as well as other interested parties to share
information and plans and to agree on how to manage development of the
A potentially important partner in the Census is the Global
Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). The GBIF was in June 1999 in Paris by
29 ministers of science or similar governmental leaders meeting in the Global
Science Forum affiliated with Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development. The GBIF is expected to begin its operations early in 2001. Most
preparatory activities for GBIF concerned terrestrial ecosystems. The CoML can
form the major marine component of the GBIF. In the US, the Census has already
been invited to be the marine part of the US affiliate of GBIF, the US National
Biological Information Infrastructure.
The Steering Committee estimates the Census as a whole will
require 10 years and a total of about $1 billion US$. In an international
scientific program of this type, about half of this amount would typically come
from US sources, public and private. The main cost of the program will be the
field projects, which are likely to cost about $5-$25 million each. While Sloan
and other private funders can catalyze the Census, most of the support will need
to come from government agencies concerned with science, with fisheries, and
with environment, as well as organizations such as the World Bank dedicated to
capacity building in developing countries as well as with implementation of
agreements such as the Convention on Biodiversity.
Planning and development for the Census will require about
two more years. Pilot field projects should take place in 2002-2004. The main
field projects should occur in 2005-2007. Analysis and integration of
information should culminate in 2008-2010.
The direct goals of CoML are to create the historical data
base on marine animal populations and a much more complete present picture.
However, a census is most valuable when it is repeated. In this regard, we are
paying careful attention to the relation of the CoML to the proposed Global
Ocean Observing System (GOOS), that sponsors hope will become operational over
the next 1-2 decades. The CoML can help bring the living marine resources
component of GOOS into existence. The Census can help determine the design
specifications for parts of GOOS and demonstrate its value.
Management of the CoML is centered on the International
Scientific Steering Committee chaired by Frederick Grassle, director of the
Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University. Dr. Grassle was
the first biologist to explore the hydrothermal vents off the Galapagos Islands.
The Census Secretariat, led by Dr. Cynthia Decker, is housed at the Consortium
for Oceanographic Research and Education in Washington DC. The Steering
Committee has met 5 times since its formation in June of 1999. The CoML website
describes the program and
also, by the way, contains a job advertisement for a distinguished senior
scientist to join the program in a leading capacity. The job should be one of
the most exciting in marine science in the coming decade.
Both individuals and institutions are critical for the success
of the Census. I do want to note that the CoML does not require the creation of
institutions. In contrast, the success of the CoML depends on
continuing, strong partnerships with organizations such as the International
Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), the Pacific International
Council for the Exploration of the Seas (PICES), DIVERSITAS, the fisheries
branch of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, and the
Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. PICES has formed a working group on
the Census, as has the Scientific Committee on Oceanographic Research (SCOR).
The SCOR working group, chaired by Canadian acoustician and Steering Committee
member David Farmer, focuses on new technologies for the observation of marine
life and their transition into practice. Such technologies, and the Census in
general, require close partnership between national fisheries agencies and
oceanographic research institutions.
The Census also requires the contributions of marine
laboratories and museums of natural history, repositories of much of our
knowledge of marine biodiversity. At the instigation of Annelies Pierrot-Bults
of the Zoological Museum of Amsterdam, more than a dozen such institutions
participated in a meeting 15-17 November at the Institute of Marine Biology of
Crete to explore their roles in the Census, and their goals for it.
What about the roles of aquariums, about which I am learning
much at this meeting. I am confident aquariums can do much for the Census. An
early role for aquariums can be to make the goals and plans of the Census known
to many of their 100 million or so worldwide visitors, and thus to help build
the public support that will assure continuing broad political and financial
support for the Census. A second role, later, can be to help share the
discoveries and findings of the Census. A third role is direct participation in
the design and conduct of the field research.
Today's session of the International Aquarium Congress is an
important step in deepening your participation in the Census. In this spirit,
in closing, let me encourage the international aquarium community to meet, as
the marine labs and natural history museums have done, to determine the ways
that your skills and resources can make the Census of Marine Life become one of
the great scientific and educational adventures of the next decade. I know
Jerry Schubel, Jordi Sabate of the Barcelona Aquarium, and others among you are
prepared to do the hard work to make this happen. Thank you very