Science Interviews


Thu, 7th Oct 2010

How the Census of Marine Life began

Jesse Ausabel, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Rockerfeller University

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show The Census of Marine Life - Celebrating a decade of discoveries

Co-founder of the Census of Marine Life, Jesse Ausabel, tells us about a very big idea he had a little over ten years ago, and how he and colleague Fred Grassle set in motion the world's biggest survey of the marine realm.

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Jesse Ausabel at Rockerfeller University and at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation






Jesse - On July 2 1996 a deep sea expert named Fred Grassle, walked into my office and said “I think something big needs to be done for marine life, for marine biodiversity”. He said that’s obviously because of overfishing and pollution but also because so much remains to be discovered. He had published an estimate that there may be between 1 and 10 million forms of marine life. 

So I said, “Fred, give me a list of what is actually known today”. He was embarrassed and said, “I can’t give you a list, we don’t have one.” 

And I said, but people have been studying marine biology since Aristotle, for 2500 years. How can you not have a list, there must be a text book with a list of all the forms of marine life. And he said, “Well, the sponge people have their lists, but they don’t always agree with the corals people, and they don’t talk to the anchovy people, and the anchovy people don’t like the tuna people, and the tuna people don’t like the shark people because sharks sometimes attack tuna.”

So he said, there’s a lot of information but it’s just not organized and most of the ocean is unexplored. So we talked for about 1.5 hours and at the end of the 1.5 hours we had the idea to have a big observational program in which we’d have hundreds of expeditions and really try to get better real information and observations.

Fred also had the basic idea, he said “We have to have a common database, so the anchovy people, and the sea star people and the herring people can’t all just go off in different directions. But we really want to know everything.”

So we both thought the idea was wonderful. We went off in separate directions and starting talking to our colleagues about it. Most people said the idea is wonderful, and most people said the idea is crazy. Some of them said it’s romantic, some of them said it’s impossible.  But no one said don’t try to do it. It made people somehow smile or laugh that we wanted to count all the fish in the sea.

So we had three whole years of feasibility studies, between 1997,1998 and 1999. So we did do our homework. We had lots of consultations. We wanted to make sure the technology was powerful enough. We wanted to make sure that people would cooperate. We wanted to make sure that if we did finish, as we have now done, people would feel it was worthwhile.

So we had three years of feasibility studies, at the end of which more people thought it was a great idea and some people still thought it was crazy. But fortunately, the people with the chequebook, the Sloan Foundation, said well lets take risks – that’s why we’re here. We’re not a federal government agency we should take a chance on something. And the president and the trustees of the Sloan Foundation said “we will support this program for 10 years as long as it meets certain milestones”.

And that’s very important because if you talk to lots of naked scientists you’ll know it’s difficult to get clothing for more than 1, 2 years at a time. It’s very hard to get long term commitments, so the fact that one organization, even though it couldn’t provide all the money in the end it provided 12% of the money But it said, “We will be steady. We’ll provide basic support every year so you all can talk to each other, coordinate, make your plans. And if you do well, we’ll keep supporting you until you finish in 2010.”

So in 2000 we started organizing. Fred’s view was that we should get in the water quickly. We’d already had some years of feasibility studies and he said “In many programs you write a plan, then you write a plan to write a plan to write a plan. And people spend 10 years planning and never get in the water or launch the rocket.”

Fred said “Let’s start doing thing right away showing the kinds of things we think should be done then try to attract people to the project by example rather than by inviting people to write documents.”

So we started right away in 2000-2001 with some expeditions in which we tried to show that we were interested not only in the squid, but we were interested in what lived on the bottom, we were interested in seabirds and all the different forms of marine life. And people became enthusiastic. IN the end almost everyone participated even though we never went out and dragged people in. It was a kind of voluntary Noah’s ark. So the abyssal plains people and the seamount people and the coral reefs people started to come to us and say “ We want to be part of this”.

It grew and by 2004-2005 we basically had all the different habitats and species represented.

Helen - And I can see by the grin on our face that it’s clearly a wonderful experience for you to be here, stood here, 10 years down the line with your crazy, romantic, impossible project finished.

Jesse - It’s been the best experience of my professional career, maybe the best experience of my life. I feel a little bit like an Olympic diver who chose a very hard dive. You do the triple somersault and it worked. So I have a little bit of that feeling today. I’m very proud, also because what we’ve done is important. It’s not easy being a fish these days and we should be a lot more sensitive about how we treat life in the oceans.


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