Highlights from world's first ocean census

Four Census scientists at the London conference share their thoughts on their personal highlights from a decade of discovery.
13 October 2010

Interview with 

Paul Snelgrove, Boris Worm, Ian Pioner, Enric Sala


We hear from four top scientists from the Census of Marine Life about what for them were the highlights of the collosal ten-year survey of the oceans.

Ian Pioner and Paul Snelgrove

Find out more:

First Census of Marine Life - Highlights of a decade of discovery

Paul Snelgrove's book:
Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life. Making the Oceans Count.

Paul Snelgrove, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Ian Poiner, Australian Institute of Marine Sciences

Boris Worm, Dalhousie University

Enric Sala, National Geographic

Paul - I would say that the really big discovery is that the age for discovery for ocean life is right now. And everywhere we look from the shoreline to the abyss we find a plethora of life. In the areas we know relatively well we have t o look a little harder but we still find new species, new migration routes, new relationships. But then in the environments we don't know so well, almost every sample we bring up contains new species scientists have never seen before.

There's a tremendous opportunity for discovery. There have been some 1200 new species described over the ten years of the Census. And we believe we have another 5000 sitting in jars species awaiting description.

And the really exciting thing is that for every species we know about, there are at least 3 or 4 we don't know about. So the 250,000 known species in the ocean probably is just a quarter of what's actually out there and possibly more. And that doesn't even include the microbes which are extremely diverse.

I would also point out that the oceans are changing very rapidly. There's a lot of bad news stories about the oceans, there's no doubt about it. But I think there's also cause for great hope because there is a plethora of life and so much to discover.

Boris - In my view the most stunning outcome of the Census is to transform, fundamentally transform, our view of the ocean as a place that is much more species rich, much more globally connected and much more heavily impacted than we had thought.

And you know, when I sat here and looked at all of you, I thought that's us as a community as well. We are much more rich, species rich, much more globally connected today, and we have much greater impact that we ever had thought on the way people perceive the oceans.

Ian - One of the most important things about this first Census of Marine Life is we've demonstrated it could be done. By doing it we've created a benchmark, a benchmark that will serve science and society for many years to come.

The Census was an unprecedented example of global cooperation. When we started in 2000 many people were quite sceptical about whether we could achieve this but we overcame that scepticism to complete the first census.

Enric - This project has completely transformed our vision of the ocean. So right now we know there are far more species than we thought, that ocean life is more connected than we thought but also that it is more impacted by human activities than we thought 10 years ago.

Helen - Can you pick out a few highlights of things that you thought - that's awesome.

Enric - Yes, there is much more life in the ocean than we expected. During the last 10 years we've been able to find about 6000 new species during the Census. But now we know based on all the studies and all the technologies used in the Census, that before we had about 250,000 species known in the ocean, now we estimate that there at least a million species in the ocean of larger things. If we think about microbes we may be talking about a billion different species in the ocean. This is something we couldn't have imagined before the Census. For me that's one of the main highlights.

Helen - Why is it important to know how many species there are? Maybe they will have all gone by the time we find them and name them?

Enric - There are so many species on the planet. And we might not even know how many species are there, with precision. And probably we will never know what all these species do in the ecosystem. However, they all have a role and we are living in an interconnected planet. So, imagine you were to board a plane and the flight attendant told you that 10 screws were missing from the plane. And you didn't know what those screws were for, you didn't know their function. Would you board that plane? 

We are removing species, species are going extinct and we don't know what they do. We might be compromising the ability of the ocean to give us all these services that are essential for us like oxygen, regulation of the climate, coastal protection, food, medicine. All these things that we take for granted. And by impacting the ocean as we have been for hundreds of years we are reducing the ability of the ocean to give us all those things that make our planet such a wonderful place to live.

Helen - How about your involvement in the Census, and your own research and the areas you've been looking at. What kind of things have you been doing towards this grand project?

Enric - I was associated with the history of marine animals populations program, which looked at human impacts in the past using historical and archaeological data. 

Also, I've been conducting a series of expeditions to the last pristine places in the ocean, the last virgin places. These places are like time machines that show us what the ocean was like before we started degrading it. So these places are the last baselines left.

Helen - Where are they?

Enric - There are  a few places left in the polar seas, in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and in remote uninhabited archipelagos in the middle of the oceans especially in the Pacific.

Helen - That sounds like a wonderful place to visit. That must have been a very life-changing, eye-opening experience to be able to go to those very remote places and see what life might have been like everywhere, I guess, in the past.

Enric - Absolutely. Going to these pristine places has been the best thing I've ever done in my career. 

Imagine you're an alien, you come to earth to study how cars work. The first time you land, you land in a junk yard. And you study one of these wrecks, a car wreck. It's all rusty, the engine doesn't work. The wheels are gone but the battery still has some juice. So you push a button and the windscreen wipers move. So you may well conclude that the car is something that allows you to sit comfortably inside, even when it rains you can see the landscape because these things clear the windscreen.

If you really want to know what the car does, you should go to a dealership and study a brand new car. Most of the ocean that has been studies in the last 50 years with scuba diving are like junk yards, we are studying wrecks. Ecosystems that have been degraded, where essential parts are missing, where species are gone. These last pristine places are like the dealerships of the ocean, places where we can read the instruction manual of  how ecosystems work. These places will allow us to understand the true magnitude of our impact in the ocean but also to have a baseline for conservation, to decide what we want for the future. 

Helen - And how about the future for the Census. Do you want to see another Census?

Enric - I think the Census is a first global baseline. There will be many more studies building up on this global framework, global community. Even if it's not called the Census of Marine Life 2, the legacy of the Census is going to last for decades.


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