The Census of Marine Life: Progress and Prospects

Citation: Fisheries 26 (7): 33–36 2001


The Census of Marine Life ( is an incipient international program to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the world’s oceans. Past reference points make a census more useful, and so the Marine Census includes research to construct a better picture of the oceans before fishing and to reconstruct time series of the history of marine animal populations. The biggest part of the Census involves new field research aimed at creating much more reliable knowledge of present marine life in both heavily exploited and little explored regions. Six pilot project are described. Both the historical and new information will be assimilated in a developing data management framework, the Ocean Biogeographical Information System(OBIS), which will allow users to click on maps of areas of the ocean and bring up information on what has been reported to live there. The success of this decade-long program will depend heavily on public and professional interest in the program and thus the success of its efforts for education and outreach, and also sound institutional arrangements for its conduct.

Keywords: Fisheries, marine life

Areas of Research: Oceans


The dream of counting all the fish in the sea is ancient, vast, and romantic.  What is new is the urgency of the task, the ability to carry it out, and the fact that growing numbers of us are trying. 

About four years ago, several leading oceanographers shared their concerns with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that humanity’s understanding of what lives in the oceans lagged far behind our desire and need to know.  Some of the scientists, such as ichthyologist Richard Rosenblatt of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, emphasized 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 exploration in the oceans is not over.

Other scientists, such as Frederick Grassle, the first biologist to visit the hydrothermal vents and the director of the Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, highlighted the importance of establishing baseline information on the distribution of marine biodiversity.  For most marine animals, we lack current, reliable maps of the species’ distribution.  While the world now has negotiated an International Convention on Biodiversity, governments and people lack the information to judge whether they comply with it, in national waters or high seas.

Still other scientists, such as Michael Sissenwine, director of NOAA’s New England Fisheries Science Center, pointed to the changing abundance of many species and the need for improved management of fisheries and marine reserves.  They noted increasing exploitation of largely unsurveyed areas such as the continental slope and sea mounts as well as violent debates about supposedly well-known species such as tuna and salmon.

Happily, the diverse scientists converged on a strategy to address their concerns: conduct a worldwide Census whose purpose would be to assess and to explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life.  Since those early discussions, assisted by Sloan and a growing number of other supporters, a continuing series of international workshops, about 15 so far, have defined the challenges for the Census of Marine Life and ways to meet them.  Three grand questions encompass the program as a whole.  What did live in the oceans?  What does live in the oceans?  What will live in the oceans?

An International Scientific Steering Committee, chaired by Grassle, 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 preview some of the likely main components of the program.

History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP)

In 1497 English fishers returned from Newfoundland with news that “the sea there is swarming with fish which can be taken in baskets let down with a stone.”  The historical component of the Census will try to create a picture of what lived in the oceans before fishing become important, and how these populations have changed since fishing loomed large, a time 50 years ago in some areas, 500 in others, and one thousand or more in a few.  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.

The Danish environmental historian and Steering Committee member, Poul Holm, leads the network of researchers and institutions that will conduct the historical part of the Census.  The University of New Hampshire, University of Hull (U.K.), and University of Southern Denmark have recently committed to launch Centers for the History of Marine Animal Populations.  The HMAP program will create and make accessible time series on marine animal populations.  It will rescue and put in electronic form historical data that could otherwise be lost.  The long time series offer superb opportunities to test hypotheses explaining why marine animal populations change.

The HMAP research during the next 5-10 years should lead not only to useful compilations of statistics and better knowledge of the causes of population change, but also 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 bays of Naples, Rio de Janeiro, or Tokyo.  As an American, I would love to picture the life in Massachusetts Bay around the year 1620 when the English settlers came.  Exhibits or other visualizations about the history of marine animal populations could be inspiring and influential, for example, in considering goals for Marine Protected Areas.

Pilot Field Projects

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 in diverse marine environments can demonstrate the ability of new technologies to accomplish a Census.  Pilot programs now under development address:

The Gulf of Maine

Ken Foote, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA (

Much-studied regions commercially important for fisheries, the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank offer an excellent chance to calibrate and demonstrate the superiority of new technologies to describe the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life.  Targets include finfish, zooplankton communities, and the poorly-known benthic communities.  A workshop held in May 2000 led to the establishment of a steering committee for the project and laid the basis for a regional consortium of institutions to conduct it.

Ecosystems of the Northern Mid-Atlantic

Odd Aksel Bergstad, Institute of Marine Research, Norway

The biology of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and overlying waters have been little studied and offer tough challenges for new technologies to see deep and far. The tentative project goal is to identify and model the ecological processes that cause variability in the distribution, abundance, and trophic relationships among organisms inhabiting the Northern Mid-Atlantic.  A workshop in February 2001 in Bergen, Norway will advance the plans, much encouraged by a recent Norwegian government decision to build a major new research vessel able to work at the Ridge.

Salmon in the Coastal and Open Ocean

David Welch, Pacific Biological Station, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada

Huge gaps persist in our knowledge of the distribution and behavior of salmon once they leave their rivers.  This project proposes to use electronic tags and innovative listening arrays to track and monitor salmon populations on the continental shelf of Canada and the US and in the open North Pacific.  A planning workshop in December 2000 in Vancouver, Canada, brought together leading experts on a variety of salmon populations to consider the design of this Pilot and how it can serve as a template for study of salmon in the Census as a whole.

Large Pacific Pelagics

Barbara Block, Stanford University, USA

Precise understanding of the distribution and behavior of the large pelagic animals at the top of the food chain may allow strong inferences about the distribution and abundance of much else that must then live in the ocean.   A workshop in November 2000 explored the design of an ambitious Pilot in the North Pacific to deploy advanced electronic data-storage tags to track and monitor large vertebrates, such as whales, sea turtles, and tuna.  The workshop generated high interest among the public in the Census of Marine Life as evidenced by coverage in ABCNews, National Geographic, and the San Francisco Chronicle (

Chemo synthetic Ecosystems in the Arctic and Northern Atlantic Oceans

Cindy Lee Van Dover, College of William and Mary, USA

We keep spotting vent ecosystems on the deep ocean floor but know little about their basin-scale diversity, distribution, and abundance.  In March 2001 a planning workshop on marine life in deep-sea chemo synthetic ecosystems such as hydrothermal vents and seeps will develop a Pilot Project in the Northern Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

Coastal Biodiversity Survey of the Western Pacific

Yoshihisa Shirayama, Seto Marine Biological Laboratory, Kyoto University, Japan

A major unanswered question is how marine biodiversity varies with the latitudinal gradient.  This Pilot Project aims to survey marine life and examine biodiversity quantitatively in near-shore areas in the Western Pacific in a continuum from the northern to southern boreal regions.  This project is developing in cooperation with the Diversitas international program, Diversitas International in the Western Pacific Area (DIWPA).  A workshop in April 2001 will refine the plans.

Eventually, 30-40 such field programs in diverse parts of the world oceans, taken together, will form the Census and should vastly improve our knowledge of the diversity, distribution, and abundance of present marine life.  Selection of the field programs must rely on an improved biogeography or stratification of the oceans on which scientists are now also working.

The prospective portion of the program, addressing what will live in the oceans, requires improved models of ecosystems dynamics.  A hard problem is to bridge the macro models concerned with levels of trophic interaction and the tons of biomass in the levels of the system with more micro models concerned with presence or absence of species and other questions of biodiversity.  Some of the 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.

Integrating the Observations

Undertaking the Census has little value unless an improved system is operating to absorb, integrate, and access data about life in the oceans.  In fact, scores of people around the world are already working to build an Ocean Biogeographical Information System (OBIS).  The vision 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.  OBIS will be a distributed system, a system of systems, and linked to geo-referenced databases for the ocean’s physical, chemical, and geological parameters.  The benefits of OBIS will extend way beyond research to all users of information about life in the sea. 

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 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 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 the initial grantees as well as other interested parties to share information and to agree on how to manage development of the system.  A special issue of Oceanography magazine (Vol, 13, No. 3, autumn 2000) describes many of the challenges and aspirations for OBIS.

Challenges abound, both abstract and practical.  Abstractly, a new culture needs to emerge in biological oceanography with regard to data.  Some fields, such as meteorology, traditionally share data, archive it systematically, and keep it accessible.  Biological oceanographers need to become accustomed to building and using large, integrated databases.

Practical challenges include interoperability, standards, and quality control as well as intellectual property.  Closely related are institutional obligations for maintaining web sites and servers.  Who hosts?  Who pays?  OBIS cannot rely only on the goodwill of individual scientists maintaining sound sites as hobbies or sidelines.  Nor is it likely that national ocean data centers within government can or will carry the full digital burden in marine biology.  Universities and research institutes customarily operate traditional libraries, but few have faced reliably maintaining research resources in the form of the digital archives and websites that are rapidly becoming the infrastructure of marine science.  Because OBIS must evolve cooperatively worldwide, another challenge is to arrive at equitable and efficient international processes for its governance and management.

A potentially important partner for OBIS and the Census more generally is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).  The GBIF was created 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 during 2001.  Most preparatory activities for GBIF concerned terrestrial ecosystems.  OBIS can form the major marine component of the GBIF, and its U.S. affiliate, the National Biological Information Infrastructure.

While the direct goals of CoML are to create the historical data base on marine animal populations and a much more complete present picture, a census is most valuable when it is repeated.  In this regard, the CoML relates closely to the emerging Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), that supporters hope will become operational over the next 1-2 decades.  The CoML can help bring the living marine resources component of GOOS into existence by helping determine its design specifications and demonstrating its value.  Groups such as the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO), an international consortium of about 20 oceanographic research institutions that deploy instruments, are seeking synergies between the Census of Marine Life and other programs for ocean observation.  Focusing the need to improve monitoring of marine life, OBIS could well be the tail that wags the dog.

Organization, Costs, Schedule

Management of the CoML centers in the International Scientific Steering Committee.  The Steering Committee has met 5 times since its formation in June of 1999, and will meet in 2001 in Bergen in February, Alaska in June,  and Buenos Aires in October.   A distinguished full-time senior scientist recruited in a worldwide search will soon begin to work with the Steering Committee and its Secretariat.  The Secretariat, led by benthic ecologist  Cynthia Decker, is housed in Washington D.C. at the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education  (CORE), an association of more than US institutions concerned with the oceans, including universities, government laboratories, and aquariums.

While success of the Census depends on both individuals and institutions, the CoML fortunately does not require creation of new international institutions.  In contrast, its success 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.  ICES and PICES have formed working groups 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 November 2000 meeting at the Institute of Marine Biology of Crete to explore their roles in the Census, and their goals for it.

The Steering Committee estimates the Census as a whole will require 10 years and a total of about $1 billion.  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, 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.

Education and Outreach

The immense value of the knowledge to be gained in the Census multiplies if is widely communicated.   An end-product of the Census must be a  web-based information center where the public can access data from all CoML projects in formats engaging for learners of all ages and the media. The infrastructure must be designed early to accommodate data inputs from all projected sources.

Researchers in marine science, in my estimate, have made too little effort to communicate the excitement of their programs and findings with the broad public and to learn the public’s goals and concerns for marine science.  Even the public interested in science knows little of the excellent major oceanographic programs of the past 20 years, such as the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE), Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS), and Global Ocean Ecology Program (GLOBEC).  The program on Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) was extensively delayed and remodeled due to inadequate early public participation.

At the outset the Census must communicate to build the public support that will assure continuing broad political and financial support for the program.  Later, it must actively work to share its discoveries and findings.  Encouragingly, aquariums are now forming a consortium for the Census, led by Jerry Schubel and Jordi Sabate, the directors of the aquariums in Boston and Barcelona.  Aquariums can make the goals and plans of the Census known to many of their 150 million or so yearly worldwide visitors.  Obviously, with every passing day the Internet matters more, and the website for the CoML ( must be a lively, effective means of interaction.


I hope I have shown both the benefits the Census of Marine Life offers and the hard labor it demands.  Research and exploration starting now can make wiser resource managers one or two decades hence and light our eyes with discoveries along the way.  The building of the Ocean Biogeographical Information System exemplifies the hard labor.  An immediate, tangible way to support the Census is to demand OBIS from all those who can influence its creation and to build it locally wherever the chance exists.

Also exemplifying hard labor is the gaining of commitments, financial and political, to conduct the Pilot Programs, a crucial step to make the Census a reality.  The eventual glory will surely make us forget all the scut work to which we soon must attend.  And, selfishly, we know that the Census of Marine Life offers a great chance for the public to provide a lasting boost to all the organizations and agencies concerned with life in the oceans, but not if we hide our abilities and accomplishments.

Let me end on an individual note.  While the Census of Marine Life begins with an ancient, vast, and romantic dream, its successes will depend on the sound work of the thousands of people around the world competent to do it.  One of my favorite movies is Taxi Driver, starring Robert de Niro.  At one point, de Niro, alone staring in the mirror, asks “You talkin’ to me?”, and answers “There ain’t no one else here.”  The world cannot import experts from Neptune to conduct the Census.  Nor can it quickly train a new cohort of people with the needed skills.  If the Census happens, the reason is that the present and emerging leaders of ocean science and technology come together creatively and choose to do it.  The Census of Marine Life, therefore, means you.