- Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count
When my daughter brings home her eighth-grade science homework, I often find myself thinking or saying, "I never learned this stuff when I was in middle school." Then I quickly remind myself that much of the information contained in her textbooks was unknown in the 1970s.
Similar thoughts popped into my mind as I was reading through Snelgrove's book on the census of marine life—in addition to thinking that perhaps science classes would have been more captivating had we been presented with this material.
As a mostly terrestrial human/cultural geographer, my knowledge of the ocean world is limited but, like many, I have a keen fascination with marine life and look forward to ocean visits, snorkeling, spending time at the beach, or visiting aquariums. What first grabbed my attention with this book was the extent of the research project that is its foundation. The actual Census of Marine Life (hereby referred to as "The Census") consisted of seventeen different but interlinked international projects, involving more than 2,700 researchers and over 500 research expeditions during a ten-year span! This type of collaboration is truly astounding and the results equally impressive. When this book went to press, The Census added more than 1,000 new species to science—and continues to add about 4 per day!! They have also collected more than 28 million records of individual ocean specimens. By bringing together such a large and diverse team of researchers, The Census was able to count and describe a great deal of marine life, both giant and microscopic, from all corners of the world. Needless to say, this author had a great deal of information to work with when compiling the manuscript. [End Page 141]
The book aims to appeal to both novice and scientist, and is divided into three parts, comprised of ten chapters. Part 1, "The Unknown: Why a Census?" offers a detailed account of the origination and justification of The Census. Part 2, "The Known: What has the Census Learned?" contains six of the book's ten chapters and provides an account of some of the researchers' key findings. The third part, by way of conclusion, is "From Unknown to Unknowable," and looks into the future of oceanic research. What makes this book appealing to a large audience is not, however, the text, which can be overly scientific to a casual reader, but the plethora of bright and beautiful photographs that populate the book.
The impetus (and funding for this census), like many scientific advances, was driven by economics. The collapse of major fisheries during the 1970s and 1980s caused public alarm. This led to greater concern and subsequent funding and research about the ocean as a system and its biodiversity. By the 1990s, scientists had suggested that less than five percent of the biodiversity in the ocean had been described (p. 9). Even today, much of the ocean remains unsampled, especially the deep ocean (below 200 meters), but there is also much to be learned nearer to land as well, and all of it is within the scope of these interrelated research projects.
The methodology employed for such a large undertaking is noteworthy. The marine ecologists divided the world's five oceans into 232 ecoregions comprised of relatively homogeneous species composition (p. 23). Obviously, certain parts of the ocean are easier to sample than others, but new technologies such as satellites, submersibles, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), made much of the ocean accessible to these researchers. One fundamental challenge confronting this team of scientists that most of us terrestrial researchers do not contemplate is that theirs is a three-dimensional world where a large amount of sea life drift and swim and spend all of their time in water, and therefore are more difficult to capture. In addition to the depth, ocean researchers must also contend with currents and tides.
One of the most-significant outputs of this research is the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS, www...