Ten-Year Probe Reveals Oceans in Peril

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Inter Press Service

Ten-Year Probe Reveals Oceans in Peril

by
Stephen Leahy

Corals are seen at the Great Barrier Reef in this January 2002 handout photo. During the eight years the census has run so far, scientists have documented that more than 90 percent of the oceans' top predators -- large sharks, tunas, swordfish, cod and others -- are now gone(REUTERS/Centre for Marine Studies/Handout)

UXBRIDGE, Canada - A thousand
points of light are being shone into the dark ocean depths as
scientists from 82 countries work to complete the decade-long global
research effort called the Census of Marine Life.

"It's been
a remarkable time of exciting new discoveries and frightening
revelations of how quickly the oceans are changing," said Canadian
deep-sea biologist Paul Snelgrove, a leader of a team integrating
findings from all 17 census projects.

"We were startled to discover small crustaceans never seen by
scientists before completely blanketing the seafloor at 500 metres in
the Gulf of Mexico," Snelgrove told IPS.

And during the eight years the census has run so far,
scientists have documented that more than 90 percent of the oceans' top
predators -- large sharks, tunas, swordfish, cod and others -- are now
gone and those remaining are in serious trouble. "We're also seeing
evidence of climate change with the shifting distribution of species,"
he said.

Equally important has been the international collaboration of
over 2,000 scientists from North and South, according to the census's
2008 report presented this week at the World Conference on Marine
Biodiversity in Valencia, Spain. Previously scientists focused on
regional or national concerns. That resulted in the same fish
population being counted two or three times as they traversed national
boundaries, producing overestimates of their actual numbers.

The pairing of scientists from the North and South in the
census will be one of its greatest legacies and crucial to future
research and management of the oceans, Snelgrove said.

"The release of the first census in 2010 will be a milestone
in science...a scientific achievement of historic proportions," said
Ian Poiner, chair of the census's International Scientific Steering
Committee and chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of
Marine Science.

"Dedication and cooperation are enabling the largest, most
complex programme ever undertaken in marine biology to meet its
schedule and reach its goals. When the programme began, such progress
seemed improbable to many observers," Poiner said in a statement.

In Valencia, scientists learned about the discovery of a new
predator living more than 7,200 metres deep in the Ryukyu Trench near
Japan. A new species of comb jellyfish, it "flies like a kite on the
end of two long 'strings' attached to the bottom" in a region thought
to be devoid of life, researchers reported.

Among the census's major exploration efforts currently
underway are 18 scientific cruises in the Antarctic ocean as part of
the International Polar Year. "Everything they'll do will never have
ever been done before," said Ron O'Dor, a squid expert and a senior
scientist with the census.

Another recent discovery is that the common ancestor of all of
the world's deep-sea octopuses still lives in the Southern Ocean, O'Dor
told IPS.

The timeline goes back 30 million years to a time when the oceans were very different than they are today.

"You need many nations working together to do this type of research over such a large region as the Southern Ocean," O'Dor said.

When the census was launched in the year 2000, scientists knew
they would make many new discoveries. But what was surprising was how
quickly new technology to explore the oceans has been developed. "I
never imagined we'd have a ship that allows you to see a shrimp 3,000
metres deep in the middle of the Atlantic ocean," O'dor said.

Miniature tracking devices and underwater electronic networks
such as the Ocean Tracking System are beginning to reveal a "global
picture of the movements of animals, whether swirling in eddies the
size of Ireland, or commuting 8,000 kilometres across ocean basins," he
said.

The census will eventually produce global maps of species
richness, showing hotspots and the extent of biodiversity in the
oceans. It will provide a complete list of named marine species, likely
to range between 230,000-250,000, as well as fresh estimates of species
yet to be discovered. There will also be web pages for the great
majority of the named species, compiled in cooperation with the
Encyclopedia of Life and DNA identifiers -- or "bar codes" -- for many
species to make future discoveries easier.

After 2010, parts of the census such as the Ocean Tracking
Network will continue on until at least 2015 when the funding runs out.
By then it is hoped that the ambitious Global Ocean Observing System
will be in place. Other census projects like DNA bar coding have proved
extremely useful to fishery mangers and will also continue. And there
are preliminary discussions about starting a second census in 2020.

The ultimate legacy of the census is that it has shifted the
attention and imaginations of many to the all-important oceans, which
are still less well-known than the surface of the moon.

"The census has inspired many scientists around the world to do this kind of work," said Snelgrove.

This detailed view-from-space of our oceans is also revealing
an acute need to take better care of them. Some form of protection and
governance over the open oceans is needed, both O'Dor and Snelgrove
say.

Snelgrove will attempt to synthesise the 10 years of census
research and produce at least three books for 2010: a popular survey of
sea life, a second book with chapters for each working group and a
third focusing on biodiversity.

One of the most fascinating census projects is the historical
reconstruction of the oceans in the near past -- 500 or more years ago
-- and a projection of what they will be like in the future, he said:
"This will be a key finding, perhaps the most important."

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