Revelations by high-tech tracking devices about the coastal migrations of endangered fish and of large animals in the open Pacific Ocean top the highlights from the growing ranks of researchers conducting the global Census of Marine Life at its 2005 mid-point.
A Census project tagging thousands of endangered salmon to chart their individual travels, with profound implications for protection of threatened stocks, will expand its arrays of underwater monitors from British Columbia north along the continental shelf to Alaska and south to California. The system could spread worldwide to monitor traffic and tribulations of the many species that migrate along the shallow coastal highways.
Meanwhile, Census scientists increased by more than 50% from 2004 the number of reporting devices on the large animals that typically venture from the shallow shelves into the deep Pacific Ocean. Some 1,800 open ocean animals of 21 species, including sharks, turtles, seals. sea lions, and seabirds carried Census tags during 2005. Some of the tags, resembling cellfones, call information into scientists via satellite each time the animal surfaces. A website (www.toppcensus.org) allows the public to follow some of these creatures in near real-time.
Tags show tuna are the marine jet set. A tagged bluefin tuna recorded its stunning trans-Pacific migration – three crossings in 600 days, a distance of 40,000 km, greater than Earth’s circumference.
1st Census of Marine Life at Mid-Point
Drawing comparisons to the Domesday Book that comprehensively surveyed England in 1066, the Census has enrolled leading global experts in a 10-year scientific partnership, unprecedented in scale, to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in all oceans, a baseline against which future change may be measured.
They are assembling in one place for the first time most of what we know about marine life, and marking what is unknown and may yet be unknowable. They are reconstructing the history of ocean life since fishing became important, censusing the present state, and using the past and present to forecast future marine lifes. They are satisfying basic human curiosity about what lives beneath the waves as well as generating insights useful for better managing and preserving ocean resources.
Starting the 10-year project in 2000 with about 250 collaborators, an almost seven-fold increase has taken place in five years. Some 1,700 experts from 73 nations are today working to produce the 1st Census by 2010. In November 2005, some 150 leaders of all components of the Census met in Frankfurt to review progress and harmonize their efforts to cover all habitats and species by 2010.
The Census reached maturation in project breadth in 2005 with 17 initiatives, four of them new this year. Expeditions to previously unexplored regions rose from 8 in 2004 to 14 in 2005, with many more planned through 2010. The years 2006-8 will see the most intense field work; the results will be analysed and integrated in 2009-10.
The research spans species from microbes to whales, from near-shore to mid-ocean, from the world’s deepest mud in the abyssal plains to the foamy and sparkling surface, from hot seafloor vents to the ice oceans at both poles. Areas of exploration include the submerged edges of continents, seamounts dotting the ocean’s floor, and coral reefs.
Using new approaches and technologies, including supersensitive visual and acoustic devices, Census researchers can sample life in all ocean realms and identify specimens quickly through genetic science and digital image libraries.
“Immense scale challenges the Census,” says Dr. Victor A. Gallardo of Chile, Vice-Chair of the Census Scientific Steering Committee. “The deep-sea floor is an area of 300 million square kilometers, of which the area sampled to date is equal to a few football fields. The number of seamounts” (underwater mountains rising at least 1,000 meters from the ocean floor, often extinct volcanoes that failed to grow tall enough to become islands) “is estimated at between 30,000 and 100,000, of which a few hundred have been biologically sampled, less than 50 of them sampled well. Representative sampling on a global scale is the key for an effective census.”
Discoveries and highlights, 2005: Fish with Chips
Marine animals carrying computer chips that report their locations show that fish and many other species use well-defined ocean zones.
The POST (Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking) project has revealed the Pacific migration routes of young wild salmon from US and Canadian rivers. Because many salmon die in the ocean, knowing their usual travels along marine highways has far-reaching implications worldwide for authorities who determine when fisheries should be open or closed to conserve endangered stocks.
The salmon are implanted with almond-sized electronic tags scanned by devices on the ocean floor when they pass over, like an electronic tag on a car passing through a highway tollbooth (see animation at http://www.postcoml.org/videos/how_it_works.htm). The data reveal the movement and survival of each tagged fish as it migrates within the system and the distribution of all the tagged fish.
The current array stretches more than 1,550 km, from Washington State, through British Columbia to north of the Alaskan panhandle. By 2010, the CoML team aims to cover the entire western North America coast, with a goal to replicate the network on continental shelves worldwide. Continental shelves average about 80 km (50 mi) wide, and the edge of the shelf occurs at an average depth of about 200 m (660 ft), where it falls steeply into the deep sea. Salmon and many other marine animals travel extensively along shelves.
The number of fish tagged almost tripled in 2005 – some 2,700 salmon from 19 US and Canadian stocks in 16 river systems, up from 1,050 fish tagged from 14 stocks in 8 river systems in 2004. The array performed nearly flawlessly, revealing substantial differences in the paths, speed, distribution and survival of species and stocks within species, both wild and from hatcheries.
Among other benefits, the work will provide clues how fish behaviour would change should ocean waters warm.
Says POST lead scientist, David Welch: “New developments in the technology mean that we will be able to monitor individual fish with tags that will last 10-20 years. For salmon, this means we will also be able to monitor the return migration of adults, providing information that could help better protect endangered stocks.”
Science Suggests Smart Fishing
"The dream of abundant and sustainable stocks of commercial fish is now one step closer, thanks to this Census of Marine Life program. The new data reveal for the first time those zones of the ocean where we have the highest leverage for conservation and thus smarter fishing," said D. James Baker, President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and former long-time chief of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, responsible for management of marine fisheries.
Why did the Fish Cross the Ocean?
The TOPP (Tagging of Pacific Pelagics) project, meanwhile, found many salmon sharks (Lamna ditropsis) from Alaska share with humans an attraction to warmer winter destinations and frequently migrate to destinations like Hawaii. Growing to more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds), the salmon sharks can attain speeds of more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) per hour. The project's shark team also recorded an unprecedented 305-day track of a white shark that completed a full migratory cycle from coastal waters to off-shore and back again.
TOPP's state-of-the-art tags have also allowed marine turtle researchers to determine how much energy a leatherback sea turtle burns at sea. Says TOPP researcher Bryan Wallace: "Imagine that the turtles are cars. These measurements allow us to know their ratings for miles per gallon on the road, not just idling in traffic. And with the help of habitat data the turtles are collecting, TOPP research may just help make traveling a bit safer for this highly endangered species.”
Discoveries and highlights, 2005: Diversity
OBIS Inventory Grows
Perhaps the foremost legacy of the inaugural Census will be the geographical information system it is creating for all data about marine life where the species of the specimen and the place it was observed are reliably recorded.
A $9.5 million meta-database, the Ocean Biogeographical Information System (OBIS), now links 60 databases containing 8.4 million taxonomic records (species, date, latitude, longitude, and depth found), an increase of 62% from 5.2 million records last year.
OBIS today contains more than 40,000 of an estimated 230,000 marine species described in science literature so far (which may only represent only one-tenth of all marine species in existence).
Of the 40,000 species of all types inventoried, 78 are marine fish newly added in the first 11 months of 2005, an average of 6.5 species added monthly. The total number of marine fish species in the database is now 15,717.
OBIS (www.iobis.org) is intended to become the world’s primary source of species distribution data – essential to knowing if a species is rare or common, where an alien invasive species originated, and if certain ocean areas are species hotspots that merit special protection. Ten regional nodes were established in 2005 to make it easier for users around the world both to deposit and access data.
Best represented species: some 80% of known fish and other marine vertebrates, as well as anemones and corals, are now included in the OBIS catalogue of life.
Census of Marine Life sponsors:
Support for the Census of Marine Life comes from government agencies concerned with science, environment, and fisheries in a growing list of nations as well as from private foundations and companies. The Census is associated or affiliated with several intergovernmental international organizations including the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the UN, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the UN Environment Programme and its World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, and the North Pacific Marine Science Organization. It is also affiliated with international nongovernmental organizations including the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research and the International Association of Biological Oceanography of the International Council for Science. The Census is led by an independently constituted international Scientific Steering Committee whose members serve in their individual capacities and a growing set of national and regional implementation committees.
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