Despite centuries of scientific observations, the earth's oceans still hold great mystery. 95 percent of this vast realm which covers 70 percent of the surface of the earth has never been explored. But, the undersea world is coming into better view as scientists from around the globe collaborate on the Census of Marine life, a 10-year, $1 billion initiative to catalog and describe all life forms in the oceans.
At last count, there were 210,000 marine life forms known to science. That's the initial count from the first of a series of census reports released last month.
The Census of Marine Life database now includes 15,304 marine fish species. With the rapid pace of discovery approximately three new marine species each week, another 2,000 to 3,000 are expected to be included in the final Census report, which is targeted for release in 2010.
Fred Grassle, Chairman of the Census of Marine Life Scientific Steering Committee, says the goal of the Census is to catalog and map the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life.
"The major themes of the Census are what did live in the oceans, what does live in the oceans, and what will live in the oceans," he said.
On a practical level the Census will identify threatened species and important breeding areas, helping fisheries to develop strategies for the sustainable management of marine resources.
Program Director Jesse Ausubel says the Census of Marine Life can also lead to new understanding of evolution, extinction, migration and climate change.
"One of the goals of the Census of Marine Life is to create a much more complete and convincing baseline picture," he explained. "So that when models of a warmer ocean or changes of patterns of ocean currents are superimposed, you will have a lot more to superimpose it on. Some of the models we look at now just look at cod and certain shrimp like animals. But there are hundreds and thousands of different kinds of animals. Really we want to have the whole picture."
This requires an array of new technologies. For example, scientists are using remote operated vehicles that can travel to the deep ocean and send live video images back to scientists on the surface.
Using these video technologies, scientists have already discovered surprisingly complex habitats formed by corals and sponges dispelling the general belief that the deep-sea floor was mostly mud.
David Farmer, who coordinates the Census Technology Working Group says instruments to detect, track and measure marine life are developing at a rapid pace.
"It ranges, for example from holographic techniques where holographic measurements can be made. And, then to take another area, acoustical methods which allow not only animals to understand their environment, but also allow us as scientists to detect their motions and identify them and to learn more about their biology," he explained.
Census Program Director Jesse Ausubel adds that the science of tagging marine species to study them has also greatly improved.
"In the early days of tagging if you tagged that animal, there was a good chance that it wouldn't live very long," he said. "Miniaturization has made a huge difference. Batteries are lighter, all the electronics and packages are smaller. So, it is now possible for the animals to carry the instruments without having their behavior distorted. In this way it is a much more humane situation, and they truly become allies in describing the oceans."
The Census of Marine Life currently includes seven different field studies three in North America, three in Europe and one in Japan. Upcoming projects will be based in the Southern Hemisphere and other regions. They will examine microbes, plankton, reefs, the Arctic and seamounts.