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Census of Marine Life prepares to wrap up final year

A classroom at sea with Dr. Paul Snelgrove.

By Kelly Foss

As mysterious as the moon, the ocean holds many secrets.

The $650-million worldwide Census of Marine Life program has spent the last decade trying to improve our understanding of the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the ocean.

After 10 years of studying everything from the seashore to the deep sea, and from whales to microbes, Dr. Paul Snelgrove says one thing for certain researchers have discovered is that it will take much longer to have a full understanding of life beneath the waters.

A professor at the Ocean Sciences Centre who is jointly appointed to Biology, Dr. Snelgrove says the Census has answered many questions but raised many others.

“We’ve counted many things but know some environments are still poorly sampled, and we know little about the specific roles of all of these species. But the community of scientists the Census has created are keen to continue working together.”

This past year the researchers have turned their attention to some of the smallest inhabitants of our oceans – microbial species and small larvae and invertebrates.

“Microbes are small and underappreciated, but mighty in what they do,” explained Dr. Snelgrove. “The oceans, and the planet, would quickly collapse without them, because they maintain cycles of nutrients critical to food webs that eventually feed us.

“While we have long known of the importance of microbes and the roles they play, the diversity and forms, and the numbers of rare species, is the really new discovery.”

One particular finding is the discovery of a ‘mat’ of bacteria in the ocean off the west coast of South America. The spaghetti-like bacteria is thriving in the low-oxygen waters and has formed a mat larger than some countries. In fact, Dr. Snelgrove believes it may be one of the largest masses of life on Earth and it has lead researchers to suspect similar mats may be forming in other like zones.

“A second part of the story is the small larvae that live in the water and grow up to become scallops, crabs and lobster that feed us,” said Dr. Snelgrove. “Again, they are small but important, and thought to be the main reason why some years are good and some are bad in many fisheries.”

While there is no clear mechanism to continue the international program at the moment, Dr. Snelgrove says there are projects that began with the Census, including the NSERC Canadian Healthy Oceans Network (CHONe) that will continue well beyond 2010.

Dr. Snelgrove has been spearheading a group that brings together all the many facets of the Census of Marine Life. A book he has written about the findings of the Census, entitled Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count, will be published in October by Cambridge University Press. A celebration of the first Census of Marine Life will take place in London in October 2010, where scientists will summarize all of the findings of the 10-year program.