Harman Patil (Editor)

Census of Marine Life

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Oceanography research



Census of Marine Life

Making Ocean Life Count

The Census of Marine Life was a 10-year scientific initiative, involving a global network of researchers in more than 80 nations, engaged to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans. The world's first comprehensive Census of Marine Life — past, present, and future — was released in 2010 in London.


Census program

The Census consists of three major component themes organized around the questions:

  1. What has lived in the oceans?
  2. What does live in the oceans?
  3. What will live in the oceans?

Census researchers undertook the task of constructing the history of marine animal populations since human predation became important, roughly the last 500 years. This program component is the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP).

The largest component of the Census involved investigating what now lives in the world's oceans through 14 field projects. Each sampled the biota in one of six realms of the global oceans using a range of technologies. Details of these field projects are provided below.

Forecasting what will live in the oceans involves modeling and simulation. This component program was the Future of Marine Animal Populations (FMAP). This group focused on integrating data from different sources and creating statistical and analytical tools to make predictions for marine populations and ecosystems.

The global initiative required a state-of-the-art data assimilation framework, and this effort, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), forms the fourth component program of the Census. The vision is that users will be able to click on maps of the oceans on their laptop or desktop anywhere in the world and bring up Census data on what is reported to live in the ocean zone of interest. At the end of 2010, OBIS contained more than 30 million records. OBIS is designed to make sharing data easy, helping to improve understanding of the patterns and processes that govern marine life.

Field projects

CoML was engaged in 14 field projects:

  • CeDAMar (Census of Diversity of Abyssal Marine Life): Abyssal Plains
  • • The Census of Diversity of Abyssal Marine Life documented actual species diversity of abyssal plains as a basis for global change research and for a better understanding of historical causes and actual ecological factors regulating biodiversity. CeDAMar collected reliable data on the large-scale distribution of one of the largest and most inaccessible environments on the planet.

  • CAML (Census of Antarctic Marine Life): Antarctic Ocean
  • The Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML) investigated the distribution and abundance of Antarctica’s marine biodiversity, how it is affected by climate change, and how change will alter the nature of the ecosystem services currently provided by the Southern Ocean for the benefit of mankind.

  • ArcOD (Arctic Ocean Diversity): Arctic Ocean
  • The Arctic Ocean Diversity (ArcOD) Census of Marine Life project documented the present Arctic Ocean biodiversity on a Pan-Arctic scale. The emphasis of this program was on biodiversity because processes are critically impacted by the composition of biota involved in them. The operational approach was to help coordinate, encourage and support research efforts designed to examine the biodiversity in the three major realms: sea ice, water column and seafloor.

  • CoMargE (Continental Margin Ecosystems): Continental Margins
  • COMARGE was a field project of the Census of Marine Life launched in 2005. The project described biodiversity patterns of benthic and bentho-demersal communities on continental margins, with a focus on multiple habitats and spatial scales, and identifying the contribution of environmental heterogeneities to these patterns. The project is led by Myriam Sibuet and managed by Lenaick Menot, both of France.

  • POST (Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking Project): Continental Shelves
  • The Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking (POST) program developed and promoted the application of new electronic tagging technology to study the marine life history of Pacific salmon. A major area of focus of the POST project involved the development of a permanent continental-scale marine telemetry system. POST's array sits on the seabed of the continental shelf and upstream in several major rivers and is used to monitor the movements of not only salmon but many other types of marine animals along the shelf. Tracking data generated from the array can be applied toward the development of fishery management policies aimed at the sustainable harvest of resources, and to the understanding and conservation of other marine and diadromous species.

  • CReefs (Census of Coral Reefs): Coral Reefs
  • By enhancing global understanding of reef biodiversity, the CoML Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs) conducted a taxonomically diversified global census of coral reef ecosystems, increased tropical taxonomic knowledge, developed new, universal protocols (e.g. DNA-based technologies and long term sampling devices) and increased access to and exchange of coral reef data dispersed throughout the world.

  • ICoMM (International Census of Marine Microbes): Microbes
  • The International Census of Marine Microbes (ICoMM) facilitated the inventory of microbial diversity and developed a strategy to catalogue all known diversity of single-cell organisms inclusive of the Bacteria, Archaea, Protista and associated viruses, and explored and discovered unknown microbial diversity, and placed that knowledge into appropriate ecological and evolutionary contexts.

  • MAR-ECO (Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystem Project): Mid-ocean Ridges
  • MAR-ECO described the patterns of distribution, abundance, and the trophic relationships among the organisms inhabiting the waters over and around the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It identified and modeled the ecological processes that cause variability in these patterns. The project focused on fish, crustaceans, cephalopods, and gelatinous plankton and other actively swimming organisms, but there was focus on top predators such as seabirds and cetaceans, which interact with the more surface environment.

  • NaGISA (Natural Geography in Shore Areas): Near Shore
  • The Natural Geography In Shore Areas (NaGISA) project was a collaborative effort aimed at inventorying and monitoring habitat specific biodiversity in the global nearshore. The international character of the project and its target zone were reflected in the word nagisa, which is Japanese for the narrow coastal zone where the land meets the sea. NaGISA held a unique position in the Census of Marine Life as an ambassador project, linking CoML to local interests around the world. NaGISA's first aim was to drawi up a global baseline of nearshore biodiversity and then use its network to continue monitoring those same shores for the next 50 years.

  • GoMA (Gulf of Maine Program): Regional Ecosystems
  • The Gulf of Maine was selected as the ecosystem pilot study for CoML. This program gained knowledge to enable ecosystem-based management in a large marine environment. The program advanced knowledge of both biodiversity and ecological processes over a range of habitats and food-chain levels, from plankton to whales.

  • CenSeam (Global Census of Marine Life on Seamounts): Seamounts
  • CenSeam was a global study of seamount ecosystems, to determine their role in the biogeography, biodiversity, productivity, and evolution of marine organisms, and to evaluate the effects of human exploitation. CenSeam commenced in 2005 and the CenSeam science community, with particular input from CenSeam's Data Analysis Working Group (DAWG), defined two overarching priority themes (1) What factors drive community composition and diversity on seamounts, including any differences between seamounts and other habitat types? (2) What are the impacts of human activities on seamount community structure and function?

  • TOPP (Tagging of Pacific Predators): Top Predators
  • The Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) research program was a collaboration among scientists from the U.S., Australia, Canada, Mexico, Japan, France and the UK, that applied new technologies to understanding the environmental basis for movements and behaviors of large pelagic animals in the North Pacific. With new electronic tags, TOPP scientists followed the migrations of marine fishes, turtles, birds, pinnipeds, whales and Humboldt squid as they crisscrossed the Pacific basin. The results answer basic questions about the animals' biology including where they feed and breed, and what migration corridors they use.

  • ChEss (Biogeography of Deep-Water Chemosynthetic Ecosystems): Vents and Seeps
  • ChEss improved the knowledge of the biodiversity and biogeography of species from deep-water chemosynthetically-driven ecosystems at a global scale and increased the understanding of the processes that shape these communities. Scientist located under the ChEss umbrella were global in nature. ChEss addressed the main questions of CoML on diversity, abundance and distribution of marine species, within the realm of deep-water reducing environments such as hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, whale falls, sunken wood and areas of low oxygen that intersect with continental margins and seamounts. ChEss scientists combined results from research on all these systems in order to understand the phylogeographic relationships amongst all deep-water chemosynthetic ecosystems.

    ChEss scientist, Michel Segonzac, was co-finder of the popular media sensation Kiwa hirsuta.

  • CMarZ (Census of Marine Zooplankton): Zooplankton
  • The Census of Marine Zooplankton (CMarZ) worked toward a taxonomically comprehensive assessment of biodiversity of animal plankton throughout the world oceans. The project produced information on zooplankton species diversity, biomass, biogeographical distribution, genetic diversity, and community structure. The taxonomic focus was the animals that drift with ocean currents throughout their lives (i.e., the holozooplankton). This assemblage currently includes ~7,000 described species in fifteen phyla. The Census encompassed unique marine environments and those likely to be inhabited by endemic and undescribed zooplankton species.

    Non-field projects

    Three non-field projects in which CoML is engaged are:

  • OBIS Ocean Biogeographic Information System: Information System
  • The Ocean Biogeographic Information System, or OBIS, is an international information system focused on marine biodiversity. It provides expert geo-referenced data on marine species and currently contains more than 30 million georeferenced, accurately identified species records from more than 800 databases. OBIS provides spatial query tools for visualizing relationships among species and their environment. This information is readily and freely accessible by the Internet and requires no special software to use.

  • FMAP (Future of Marine Animal Populations): Oceans Future
  • FMAP attempted to describe and synthesize globally changing patterns of species abundance, distribution, and diversity, and to model the effects of fishing, climate change and other key variables on those patterns. This work was done across ocean realms and with an emphasis on understanding past changes and predicting future scenarios.

  • HMAP (History of Marine Animal Populations) : Oceans Past
  • The History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP) improved the understanding of ecosystem dynamics, specifically with regard to long-term changes in stock abundance, the ecological impact of large-scale harvesting by man, and the role of marine resources in the historical development of human society. Since the earliest historical records, man has harvested a variety of different animals from the oceans. While ecologists have traditionally aimed to identify the current conditions of many of the animal populations affected both directly and indirectly by harvesting, much less focus has been given to the status of affected populations in earlier times. HMAP created a historical reference point of marine populations against which modern populations can be compared to determine how ocean ecosystems are changing with respect to human impact and even climate change.

  • Mapping & Visualization
  • A Mapping and Visualization Team based at Duke University's Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab developed and shared methods to display the results of the ten-year Census of Marine Life.

    National and Regional Implementation Committees (NRICs)

    One of the global goals of the Census of Marine Life was strengthening support for marine biodiversity research at the national or regional level that will continue after the CoML has concluded. Following in the footsteps of other successful global research programs, several nations and groups of nations brought together regional CoML stakeholders, such as researchers, government and non-government agencies, and resource managers, to assess the status of knowledge of marine biodiversity in their waters. These assessments led to the organization of National or Regional Implementation Committees (NRICs) to implement more local programs and improve the geographic scope of CoML and its projects. By engaging scientists, funding agencies, policy-makers and the broad user community, these national and regional committees identified their research and data priorities for marine biodiversity and find ways to make them happen by building partnerships, exploring funding opportunities for local science, and promoting CoML to local audiences. The committees worked under the umbrella of the CoML.

    Areas of the globe represented by an NRIC include:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Caribbean
  • China
  • Europe
  • Japan
  • Indian Ocean
  • Indonesia
  • Republic of Korea
  • South America
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
  • United States
  • Arabian Sea
  • Partnerships

  • Encyclopedia of Life
  • CoML was a partner with the Encyclopedia of Life in their effort to create descriptive web-page records for all the known species on Earth. CoML was an integral part on creating pages for marine species.

  • Barcode of Life
  • CoML was a partner with Barcode of Life to help create DNA barcoding for the anticipated 230,000 marine species known thus far. CoML provided scientific data to Barcode of Life to greatly accelerate the process of creating DNA barcodes.

  • Google Earth
  • Google and Census of Marine Life partnered on Google Earth 5.0. Ocean in Google Earth contains a layer devoted to the Census of Marine Life that allows users to follow scientists from the Census on expeditions and see marine life and features found during the Census.


    The Census of Marine Life housed a Synthesis Group that integrated and synthesized the large amounts of information produced by CoML projects into common themes and overarching messages. This group produced a comprehensive and cohesive suite of products released to the public in 2010. Products include books, webpages, collections, articles, maps, and many others.


    Census of Marine Life Wikipedia