Biology: The Dynamics of Life 1998

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Counting the Ocean’s Population
December 2003

The Census of Marine Life, known as CoML, is a project that began in 2000. According to this organization’s Web site (http://www.coml.org/coml.htm), its ambitious goal is, “to conduct research that leads scientists around the world to assess the diversity, distribution, and abundance of ocean life, and how it changes over time.” The project is slated to be completed by 2010, though the project’s tasks may never actually be finished.

What Does It All Mean?
The idea for the CoML started with a report published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995. The report stated that the diversity of organisms in the world’s oceans was being heavily impacted by the increase in human population. Scientists representing 53 countries will work cooperatively on the CoML during the first decade of the 21st century to collect data in a variety of areas related to the population of life in the oceans. Researchers hope to learn more about animals that are endangered due to pollution, climate changes that affect all biomes, and the impact of overfishing on all the oceans’ populations. Scientists expect that they might count over 2 million different species of marine life by the time the project reaches its conclusion.

How Does CoML Break Down?
The Census is broken into a variety of projects that encompass a broad scientific focus.

The History of Marine Animal Populations will take an historical look at populations of animals in the ocean. This will provide a way to investigate how humans have had an affect on the ocean and its inhabitants.

The Future of Marine Animal Populations will use the data collected in the Census of Marine Life to create mathematical models to analyze and predict changes to the ocean’s inhabitants.

The Biogeography of Deep-Water Chemosynthetic Ecosystems will explore chemosynthetic environments to understand more about the types of marine species that live in these unique parts of the world’s oceans.

The Census of Diversity of Abyssal Marine Life will document the types of organisms that live in deep ocean environments.

The Gulf of Maine Project will study a 90,700 square-km ecosystem in North America to compose a complete picture of the diversity of organisms that live there and the changes brought about by human and natural influences.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystem Project will investigate this relatively unexplored and extreme region of the Atlantic Ocean in order to learn more about the features of this deep ocean region and the organisms that live there.

The Natural Geography in Shore Areas Project will create a complete picture of the marine animals that live in the inshore zones of the world’s oceans. This is an especially important CoML project because it focuses on the areas of the ocean at depths of less than 20 meters, the part of the world’s oceans that most people are familiar with and interact with.

The Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking Project will examine conservation efforts to study Pacific salmon as they migrate between river and ocean environments. Pacific salmon have been implanted with electronic tagging technology to study their movements.

The Tagging of Pacific Pelagics will study the migration patterns of animals such as whales, sharks, and seals that live in the vast open areas of the North Pacific Ocean.

How Many Fish In the Sea?
The Census of Marine Life could ultimately cost up to $1 billion, and has already added to our knowledge of the oceans by identifying an average of 160 new marine fish species since the project’s beginning. Will the study be able to identify every species of marine life? “We know we won’t have counted every animal,” said J. Frederick Grassle, who is the director of one of the institutes playing a major research role in the CoML. The coalition of scientists, environmentalists, and industrials hope to add to the body of knowledge about marine organisms and understand how to protect and preserve the animals that live in the area that covers 70% of Earth’s surface.

Activity
Select one of the field projects that encompass the research areas for the Census of Marine Life at http://www.coml.org/coml.htm. Research the project and describe its current status. Share your findings with your class.

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Biology: The Dynamics of Life