Described as the largest programme in history to discover new life under water, Ocean Census has set itself the task of finding and scientifically describing at least 100,000 new marine species from around the world over the next 10 years.
Much of the work will be undertaken in the deeper parts of the ocean using cutting-edge exploration and analysis technology, but at the same time the ambitious global programme will embrace citizen-science contributions from scuba divers and boat-users among others.
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Speaking at the launch event in London on 27 August, Ocean Census director Oliver Steeds, who is also chief executive of the UK-based marine science and conservation institute Nekton, said: “We have a short window of opportunity, perhaps the next 10 years, when the decisions we all make will likely affect the next 1,000 or even 10,000 years.
“Some people are saying: ‘It’s time to go big or go home.’ We’ve chosen to go big, and we hope the giant leaps in knowledge we can make with the discovery of ocean life can help put us on a better track towards a positive future for people and the planet.”
10% and counting
The 100,000-species target has to be set in context, because although some 240,000 marine species have been scientifically described to date, scientists estimate that another 2 million – 90% of the total – still await discovery.
Ocean Census has been set up by Nekton with initial core funding from Japan’s biggest non-profit philanthropic organisation, the Nippon Foundation.
The first of many “Ocean Census Biodiversity Centres” has been established at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, providing the base from which to establish a global open network based on science, business, governments, media and civil society.
“Ocean life makes all life on Earth possible and holds the wisdom of 4 billion years of our evolution on Earth,” said Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa. “We can’t protect what we don’t know exists. We have a race against time to discover ocean life before it is lost for generations to come.”
Ocean Census is said to be building on the original such endeavour, the Challenger Expeditions of the 1870s, and the Census of Marine Life carried out over the first decade of the 21st century.
The current rate of new-species discovery is said to have hardly altered since the 1800s, standing at little more than 2,000 species a year. Scientific description, or taxonomy, has remained a “painfully slow” process for a world facing climate and biodiversity crises that could result in the loss of most current species, according to Ocean Census.
That process is however being transformed through the use of new technology, especially in the fields of DNA and artificial intelligence. “Revolutions in technologies such as digital imaging, sequencing and machine learning now make it possible to discover ocean life at speed and at scale,” said Ocean Census science director Prof Alex Rogers at the launch.
“It currently takes one to two years to several decades to describe a new species after it is collected by scientists, but utilising new technologies and sharing the knowledge gained using cloud-based approaches, it will now take only a few months.”
Asked by Divernet about the use of AI, Dr Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Ocean Census partner Schmidt Ocean Institute, explained: “We’ve already been collecting thousands of hours of video footage and the first step is to label everything. There’s a program now, Ocean Visions AI, that will start training the computer models to automatically start that labelling.
“The next step is to start using AI to see how things interact with each other, then move to predicting and finding places perhaps where creatures are interacting with each other in different ways. So we are moving towards using artificial intelligence – or what I prefer to call augmented intelligence – with these machine-learning programs.”
Ocean Census will involve scientists from around the world undertaking “dozens of expeditions” to the ocean’s biodiversity hotspots to find new marine life. Making use not only of research vessels from philanthropic, government and commercial fleets, they will be able to deploy everything from scuba divers to ROVs, AUVs and submarines in their underwater searches. However, contributions made using private vessels are also expected to be crucial to the initiative.
“The private vessels involved in Ocean Census will range from the size of Falkor 2 [the Schmidt Ocean Institute vessel] and the REV Ocean to private yachts that might be dropping scuba divers into an area to take water samples for EDNA [environmental DNA],” explained Prof Rogers. “We might be able to create standardised sampling kits for all those vessels to gather scientific data, so I think there’s a large role for private vessels on all scales in this programme.”
Nekton had already been using many private vessels in its research work, he said. “While there’s actually quite a small community of marine scientists out there gathering data, many of these private vessels get to places we just don’t get to.”
Tracking down micro-organisms will not form part of the project, with microbes such as bacteria, algae and plankton already under investigation by Tara Oceans, and conservative estimates of 40,000 bacteria and 200,000 viruses being present in the oceans.
“We’re very focused on multi-cellular creatures, or metazoans,” said Prof Rogers. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that most of our discoveries will be of smaller organisms which, although quite difficult for the public to perceive, when you blow up these animals as electron micrographs or other forms of imaging are equally fascinating in terms of their sometimes bizarre appearance.
“But we should also remember that we’re still discovering new species of whales even now, so it’s not all going to be small organisms – it could be fish and it could even be some of our largest animals.”
“We found the longest sea creature only in April 2020,” pointed out Dr Virmani. “It’s remarkable that we should be finding something that’s 45m in length just three years ago.” The discovery of the creature, a siphonophore, off Australia was reported on Divernet. “It’s incredible what’s hiding out there.”
Point of access
New species discovered will be sent for high-resolution imaging and DNA-sequencing at one of a network of “Ocean Census Biodiversity Centres” to be established in high, middle and low-income nations around the world.
Taxonomists will connect virtually to examine these “digital life forms” and complete the species descriptions. In the process it is hoped that the current decline in numbers of taxonomists, who until now have tended to be concentrated in high-income nations, can be reversed.
The resulting Ocean Census Biodiversity System will form a single point of access for scientists, decision-makers and the public, say the organisers, who claim that achieving the well-publicised aim of protecting 30% of the oceans by 2030 will depend on the data provided through the system.
“This new foundation of knowledge can help advance our understanding of fundamental science – oxygen production, carbon cycling, sustainable food production, the evolution of life on Earth and even discoveries of new medicine and biotechnologies,” said Nippon Foundation executive director Mitsuyuki Unno.
“Through advancing our understanding of the abundance, diversity and distribution of life in our ocean, we hope Ocean Census will catalyse global efforts to conserve our ocean.”
And, as Dr Virmani pointed out at the launch, should extinction of marine species start to make the idea of “conservation” redundant, DNA-sequencing could instead make “restoration” a practical prospect in the future.
News, films and events can be followed at the Ocean Census site, through the monthly digital newsletter Ocean Census News and social media and on YouTube.
Also on Divernet: ‘Minion’ Squid Filmed For First Time, Trapping Zone: Mystery Canteen For Maldives Sharks, Towering Reef Discovered In GBR, CCR Divers Link With Subs Deep Off Bermuda, Nekton Issues 360° Deep-Ocean Video