An ambitious plan to census all the critters in the world's oceans is proceeding swimmingly, thanks to an award announced last week. The $3.7 million, distributed among eight research teams, will fund model Internet atlases that display everything from the distribution of squids to the DNA sequences of tiny zooplankton. The projects, researchers say, will guide conservation of marine biodiversity.
The planned "Census of Marine Life," a 10-year, billion-dollar effort, aims to answer three questions, says co-developer Jesse Ausubel of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City: "What did, what does, and what will live in the ocean?" Although researchers have described some 15,000 kinds of marine fish, for instance, they estimate that at least 5000 more species, along with countless crustaceans, shellfish, and worms, have eluded detection. And often the numbers and distribution of even known species are sketchy.
The newly funded projects are designed to "take the best data we already have--which is often in some researcher's notebook--and make it widely available in a standard format," says census co-developer J. Frederick Grassle, a marine biologist at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. Researchers dubbed this concept the global ocean biogeographic information system (OBIS). The 2-year grants, administered by the National Oceanographic Partnership Program and involving 63 institutions in 15 nations, are designed to jump-start OBIS. A team led by Edward Wiley of the University of Kansas's Natural History Museum in Lawrence, for example, hopes to link 21 databases holding information on 39 million fish specimens through FISHNET, a Web-based archive. Others, such as Dale Kiefer of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, will develop tools for displaying and manipulating information from a particular region, in his case the Gulf of Maine. The eventual goal is point-and-click maps that can display data on everything from water temperature to sea bottom contours within a particular swath of ocean.
Some environmentalists worry that identifying hidden populations of marine life could hasten their exploitation, but researchers say the potential conservation benefits outweigh the risks. "One reason we've done a woeful job of conserving marine biodiversity is that we lack an understanding of what and where it is, says Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Washington.