Census of Marine Life

By Sue Matthews. Published in Marine Scientist No 5 (2003)

There are quite possibly more specimens representing Africa's marine biodiversity in the museum collections of Europe and America – many of them of species never described – than in those of their countries of origin.

"During colonial times, and before that in the era of the great research expeditions, material collected from African waters was taken away to be worked up and published, but voucher specimens were never sent back to the home country," says Charles Griffiths, professor of zoology at the University of Cape Town. "In fact, there still remains a large reservoir of material in places like the Natural History Museum in London, just waiting for a taxonomist to get round to describing it."

In September Prof Griffiths convened a workshop in Cape Town that brought together delegates from 16 countries around the African coast. It was one of a series of workshops held under the auspices of the Census for Marine Life programme to assess global knowledge of marine biodiversity.

"The catch-phrase they use for these workshops is the Known, Unknown and Unknowable," says Prof Griffiths. "The goal is to document what is known about marine biodiversity, what is unknown but could be found out, and to speculate about what would be nice to know, but which we're never going to find out!"

"What we came up with is essentially a status report of marine biodiversity in Africa. We now have lists of known fauna and flora from the countries that could provide them, an indication of what groups have and have not been studied, and statements as to what museum collections and taxonomic resources are available in each country. However, one of the eye-opening aspects of the workshop was that scientists in African countries were sometimes completely unaware of work that had been published on the fauna and flora of their own countries, but by European researchers."

The KUU workshops are just one component of the Census of Marine Life, an international research programme to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the world's oceans - past, present and future. It's a ten-year initiative proposed by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic non-profit institution established in 1934 by the then President and CEO of the General Motors Corporation.

"When the programme was originally conceived by the Foundation in the mid-1990s, the idea was to do a census of all the fish in the sea," says Cynthia Decker, seconded to the programme from the Office of the Oceanographer of the United States Navy. "But it's evolved into a much more scientific programme, not just concerned with counting things but looking more at species richness, the distribution of species, and the relationships between them."

The programme is now managed by an international Scientific Steering Committee and a Secretariat, hosted by the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE) in Washington, DC, although its different parts are administered from centres around the world.

The historical component of the programme – the History of Marine Animal Populations, or HMAP - is led by Poul Holm of Southern Denmark University. It aims to improve understanding of ecosystem dynamics, specifically with regard to long-term changes in stock abundance, the ecological impact of large-scale harvesting, and the role of marine resources in the historical development of human society.

"HMAP is really interesting because it's trying to mine data from historians who have access to catch records that fisheries managers wouldn't ordinarily be aware of – for example, those kept by monasteries and tax authorities up to 500 years ago," says Dr Decker.

It's hoped that the information gleaned will provide a historical reference point against which to compare changes in marine ecosystems due to human activities and climate change.

"HMAP is taking a case study approach, with specific sites around the world chosen on the basis that good historical information exists for them," explains Prof Griffiths, who is co-ordinating one such study on the Benguela upwelling system.

"We're looking at the impacts human activities have had on the Benguela by trying to document what marine life has been removed over the years. The Benguela has had a relatively short history of exploitation compared to the North Sea or the Mediterranean, and that made it fairly easy for us. It's really only since the beginning of the 19th century that human activities have had a broad-scale impact. Before that, exploitation was confined to one or two species taken by sealers and whalers, and we can plot the number of animals taken per decade quite accurately, right back to 1790."

The present-day component of the Census of Marine Life is being addressed through seven Initial Field Projects. These are short-term demonstration projects exploring a variety of innovative approaches to the study of marine biodiversity. They range from tracking the movements of salmon and large predators in the Pacific Ocean, to studying the biota of mid-ocean ridges, abyssal plains, deep-sea vents and cold seeps, and surveying biodiversity using both the latest technologies and very basic techniques.

For example, the project Natural Geography in Shore Areas (NaGISA) - run by Yoshihisa Shirayama of Japan's Kyoto University - uses a simple, cost-efficient and low-tech sampling protocol for inventoring and monitoring biodiversity from the high intertidal zone to 20 m depth. (In Japanese, the word nagisa refers to the narrow coastal strip where land meets sea.) The protocol comprises two levels of sampling: basic photography and observational techniques, including percent-cover estimates, and more complicated direct removal using core and quadrat sampling. This should encourage research groups to adopt it widely, but also promote local community involvement in the Census of Marine Life. The ultimate goal is a series of well-distributed standard transects around the world, which will provide baseline data for long-term monitoring as well as information needed to answer fundamental questions about changes in biodiversity with longitude and latitude.

Information gained from HMAP and the field projects will be used through the Future of Marine Animal Populations (FMAP) project to model and predict changes to global biodiversity in response to fishing, pollution and climate change. FMAP will make datasets available for hindcasting and forecasting analyses linked to physical ocean observations, and assist in documenting the impacts of conservation efforts on sustainability.

All information collected through the Census of Marine Life will be available online to both scientists and the general public via OBIS – the Ocean Biogeographic Information System. Currently maintained at Rutgers University, OBIS links marine databases around the world to provide a user-friendly, dynamic interface for accessing, modelling and mapping marine biological data. In 2003, two million geo-referenced species records from nine interoperable databases are available online through OBIS, and the delegates at the Cape Town workshop hope to develop their own African database to add to this.

"The long-term dream would be to have a website you can go to and click on any African country to get a list of species described there, or click on a species and obtain a distribution map showing the countries in which it's been recorded," says Prof Griffiths.

Another outcome of the workshop was a resolution to set up an academic exchange programme, so that taxonomic expertise and knowledge can be shared. Prof Griffiths relates that he recently asked a pair of French taxonomists to assist in compiling a monograph on South Africa's ascideans - or sea squirts – a group which nobody in the region had worked on for decades.

"They were here for less than a month, and during that time found 22 new species – essentially a species per day! That gives a good indication of just how far we still have to go before we have a decent understanding of our marine biodiversity."

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