The Census of Marine Life

A major landmark in ocean science was reached in October 2010 with the completion of the world’s first Census of Marine Life. It was 10 years in the making, involved hundreds of...
02 August 2011

Interview with 

Jesse Ausubel, the Sloan Foundation; Sylvia Earle


Helen -   A major landmark in ocean science was reached in October 2010 with the completion of the world's first Census of Marine Life.  It was 10 years in the making, involved hundreds of scientists all across the globe who joined forces to take on the enormous challenge of discovering as much as possible about the abundance, diversity, and distribution of life in the oceans.  Sarah and I went along to a special conference in London that celebrated the achievements of the Census.  To find out how the whole thing got started, we chatted to Jesse Ausubel from the Sloan Foundation about a very big idea he had a little over 10 years ago...

Jesse -   On July 2nd, 1996, a deep sea expert named Fred Grassle said, "I think something big needs to be done for marine life, for marine biodiversity," and he said "obviously that's because over-fishing, pollution problems, but also because so much remains to be discovered."

He had published an estimate, that there might be between 1 and 10 million forms of marine life.  And so I said, "Well Fred, give me a list of what's actually known today," and he was embarrassed.  

He said, "I can't give you a list.  We don't have one."  And I said, "But people have been doing marine biology since Aristotle for 2,500 years.  How come you'll not have a list?  There must be a textbook with a list of all the forms of marine life" and he said, "Well, you know, 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..."  

Coral ReefSo, there's a lot of information but it's just not organised and most of the ocean is unexplored.  So we talked for about an hour and a half, but the end of the hour and a half, 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, and Fred also had the basic idea and said, "But 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, so we really want to know everything."

So, we both thought the idea was wonderful and we went off in separate directions and started 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 3 whole years of feasibility studies during 1997, '98, '99.  We did do our homework.  We had lots of consultations.  We wanted to make sure that the technology was powerful enough, we wanted to make sure that people would cooperate.  We wanted to make sure that if we finished, as we've now done, that people would feel it was worthwhile.  So, we had 3 years of feasibility studies.  At the end of which, more people felt it was a great idea and some people still thought it was crazy.  But fortunately, the people with the check book at the Sloan Foundation said, "Well we should take risks.  That's why we're here.  We're not like a federal government agency.  We should take a chance on something."  The president and the trustees of Sloan 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 know that it's hard to get clothing for more than one year or two years at a time.  It's very hard to get long term commitments.  So the fact that one organisation, even though it couldn't provide all the money - in the end it provided 12% of the money - it said, we will be steady.  We will provide basic support every year as you walk and talk to each other, coordinate, make your plans and if you do well, each year, we're just going to keep supporting you until you finish in 2010.

In 2000 we started organising and Fred's view was that we should get into the water quickly.  We'd already had some years of feasibility studies but we said, with many programs - you write a plan and then you write a plan to write a plan to write a plan...  And people spend 10 years planning and never get to the water or launch a rocket.  

And so Fred said, "Let's start doing things right away!"  Showing the kinds of work that we think should be done, and then try to attract people to the project by example rather than just inviting people to write documents.  And so, we started right away, immediately in 2000, 2001 with some expeditions in which we try to again show that we were interested not only in the squid, but we we're interested and what lived on the bottom, and we were interested in sea birds, all of 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 sea mounts people, and the reefs people, they just kind of started to come to us and say, "we want to be part of this" and it grew, and by 2004, 2005, we basically had all the different habitats and the different species represented.

Helen -   And I can see by grin on your face that it's clearly a wonderful experience 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 and maybe the best experience of my life.  I feel a little bit like an Olympic diver who chose a very hard dive and then you do the triple somersault and it worked, so I have a little bit of that feeling today.  So I'm very proud.  Of course, I'm proud because what we've done is important also because 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.

Helen -   Jesse Ausubel, the co-founder of the Census of Marine Life, telling me, Helen Scales about how the whole grand project got started.

Sarah -   We really did have a fantastic time at the Census Conference and not just because of lots of champagne.  It was great to meet so many scientists who dedicated themselves to studying the ocean - from people using DNA bar-coding to indentify tiny critters, to those tracking the global migrations of ocean giants like sharks and whales, and we got to meet one of our absolute heroes, the legendary explorer, Sylvia Earle.  Here's what she had to say about the Census.

Sylvia -   It's been said several times and I'll say it again.  This is a wonderful beginning.  Ten years is a long time and it has set the stage for whatever follows.  This really has stirred things up and makes it perfectly obvious that the great era may be the greatest era of exploration is truly just beginning.

Some think that it's all over, that we have to reach skyward to find new frontiers and of course, we can find them there.  We need to do that, but mostly, we need to get to know this part of the universe.  This part of the solar system, this place that keeps us alive.  It's critical in terms of that great dream of human kind and that is to have peace.  We cannot have peace among ourselves if we failed to have peace with nature, and we're not.  Right now, we're not.  We're cutting forests that have been growing for thousands of years.  We're mining the ocean of its wildlife that has been developing for hundreds of millions of years, and I can forgive it only on the basis that people just don't know.  They don't know and yet, we have the power of knowing and the Census of Marine Life has gone a long way toward putting things in perspective that not only have we just begun to get to know this ocean planet and to appreciate that our lives are dependent on the ocean and the creatures.  It's not just rocks and water out there.  It's a living system that gives us oxygen that grabs the carbon out of the atmosphere, that drives the food webs, drives not just the carbon cycle and the oxygen cycle, but the water cycles.  It's where 97% of the water on the planet is and without the ocean, no rain, no water, no life.  We absolutely are dependent.  We are sea creatures, every bit as much as those magnificent numbers of individuals that the Census of Marine has been cataloguing and celebrating at this occasion.

Helen -   That was the wonderful Sylvia Earle, pioneer of deep sea exploration.  She's spent thousands of hours underwater and still holds the record for walking on the seabed deeper than anyone else.  She ventured down 400 meters inside a diving suit called JIM back in 1979.


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