- A new initiative called the Ocean Census aims to expand marine biodiversity knowledge by finding 100,000 new marine species within a decade.
- It will send scientists on dozens of expeditions at marine biodiversity hotspots and use advanced technology like high-resolution imagery, DNA sequencing and machine learning, to identify new species.
- Scientists estimate that only about 10% of marine species have been formally described, and about 2 million species have yet to be identified.
On April 29, a team of scientists sailed on a research vessel to the chilly waters of the Barents Sea in the Arctic. They aim to find new marine species around cold seeps — cracks on the seafloor from which hydrogen sulfide, methane and other gases bubble up. Near these fissures, species, including soft corals, glass sponges, sea pens and crustaceans, could be waiting to be discovered.
Scientists estimate that only about 10% of marine species have been formally described, and about 2 million species have yet to be identified. A new global initiative called the Ocean Census aspires to change this.
The Ocean Census has set an ambitious goal of finding 100,000 new marine species within a decade. It intends to do this by sending scientists on dozens of expeditions to marine biodiversity hotspots and using advanced technology like high-resolution imagery, DNA sequencing and machine learning.
The initiative will undertake seven expeditions in its first year of operation but plans to do even more in the years to come, according to Nekton, a marine science and conservation institute in the U.K that co-founded the initiative with the Nippon Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization in Japan. The first expedition is already underway in the Barents Sea, in partnership with the University of Tromsø.
The Ocean Census seeks to bring together many partners from science institutes, businesses, civil society organizations and media to achieve its goals.
The aim of the Ocean Census is to build upon past efforts to document marine life, such as the Challenger Expeditions, a foundational marine scientific program that took place between 1872 and 1876, as well as the more recent Census of Marine Life, a project that took place between 2000 and 2010. The Census of Marine Life launched 540 marine expeditions, but scientists found and formally described about 1,200 new marine species; other organisms are still awaiting identification.
Alex Rogers, the science director of Ocean Census who also acts as the director of the research initiative REV Ocean, said that technological revolutions will “make it possible to discover ocean life at speed and at scale.”
“It currently takes one to two years to several decades to describe a new species after it is collected by scientists but utilising new technologies and sharing the knowledge gained using cloud-based approaches, it will now only take a few months,” Rogers said in a statement.
Yohei Sasakawa, chair of The Nippon Foundation, said the knowledge gathered during this expedition is necessary to advance our understanding of the ocean.
“We can’t protect what we don’t know exists,” Sasakawa said in a statement. “We have a race against time to discover ocean life before it is lost for generations to come. Ocean Census will create an immense wealth of openly accessible knowledge that will benefit and sustain all life on Earth, for humankind and our planet. Ocean Census is full of dreams and wonder, and cannot be accomplished by the Nippon Foundation and Nekton alone.”
The ocean is critical in regulating the Earth’s climate while providing food and livelihoods for billions of people. However, the ocean faces a torrent of threats, such as overfishing, pollution and the impacts of climate change, including ocean warming and acidification.
As the threats to the ocean become increasingly clear, decision-makers are working to implement marine conservation efforts. For instance, the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 global biodiversity framework has a goal of protecting 30% of both terrestrial and marine areas by 2030. U.N. member states also recently approved a treaty that could help protect high seas’ biodiversity in marine areas outside of national jurisdiction.
“We have a short window of opportunity, perhaps the next ten years, when the decisions we all make will likely affect the next thousand or even ten thousand years,” said Oliver Steeds, the director of the Ocean Census and chief executive of Nekton, in a statement. “Some people are saying ‘it’s time to go big or go home.’ We’ve chosen to go big, and we hope the giant leaps in knowledge we can make with the discovery of ocean life, can help put us on a better track towards a positive future for people and the planet.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Banner image caption: Coral Reef at Marsa Gozlani site, Sharm el Shekh, Egypt. Image by Renata Romeo / Ocean Image Bank.
Mora, C., Tittensor, D. P., Adl, S., Simpson, A. G., & Worm, B. (2011). How many species are there on earth and in the ocean? PLoS Biology, 9(8), e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127