Ten-Year Probe Reveals Oceans in Peril

sea-anemoneBy Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 11 (IPS) – A thousand points of light are being shone into the dark ocean depths as scientists from 82 countries work to complete the decade-long global research effort called the Census of Marine Life.

“It’s been a remarkable time of exciting new discoveries and frightening revelations of how quickly the oceans are changing,” said Canadian deep-sea biologist Paul Snelgrove, a leader of a team integrating findings from all 17 census projects.

“We were startled to discover small crustaceans never seen by scientists before completely blanketing the seafloor at 500 metres in the Gulf of Mexico,” Snelgrove told IPS.

And during the eight years the census has run so far, scientists have documented that more than 90 percent of the oceans’ top predators — large sharks, tunas, swordfish, cod and others — are now gone and those remaining are in serious trouble. “We’re also seeing evidence of climate change with the shifting distribution of species,” he said.

whitetip-grey-reef-sharksEqually important has been the international collaboration of over 2,000 scientists from North and South, according to the census’s 2008 report presented this week at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Valencia, Spain. Previously scientists focused on regional or national concerns. That resulted in the same fish population being counted two or three times as they traversed national boundaries, producing overestimates of their actual numbers.

The pairing of scientists from the North and South in the census will be one of its greatest legacies and crucial to future research and management of the oceans, Snelgrove said.

“The release of the first census in 2010 will be a milestone in science…a scientific achievement of historic proportions,” said Ian Poiner, chair of the census’s International Scientific Steering Committee and chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

“Dedication and cooperation are enabling the largest, most complex programme ever undertaken in marine biology to meet its schedule and reach its goals. When the programme began, such progress seemed improbable to many observers,” Poiner said in a statement.

In Valencia, scientists learned about the discovery of a new predator living more than 7,200 metres deep in the Ryukyu Trench near Japan. A new species of comb jellyfish, it “flies like a kite on the end of two long ‘strings’ attached to the bottom” in a region thought to be devoid of life, researchers reported.

Among the census’s major exploration efforts currently underway are 18 scientific cruises in the Antarctic ocean as part of the International Polar Year. “Everything they’ll do will never have ever been done before,” said Ron O’Dor, a squid expert and a senior scientist with the census.

new-species-of-squid-coml-smallAnother recent discovery is that the common ancestor of all of the world’s deep-sea octopuses still lives in the Southern Ocean, O’Dor told IPS.

The timeline goes back 30 million years to a time when the oceans were very different than they are today.

“You need many nations working together to do this type of research over such a large region as the Southern Ocean,” O’Dor said.

For full story see Ten-Year Probe Reveals Oceans in Peril

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