The $1 billion international Census of Marine Life, could boost Australia’s capacity to survey its vast, biologically diverse and resource-rich marine territory, the governmental Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) said on 20 February at the meeting in Tasmania.

The census is the brainchild of Jesse Ausubel of the US-based, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a private philanthropic organisation that fosters scientific programmes. Its backers say it will enable the guidance of marine conservation, helping nations to comply with the International Convention on Biodiversity, and to improve the management of fisheries, marine reserves and other human uses of the oceans.

The project would also allow all computer users to access information which is currently difficult to find. “Anyone, at a computer anywhere in the world, will be able to click on any ocean location and discover what is reported to live there,” Ausubel said. In addition, a history of marine animal populations is also being developed as part of the census. This will enable the study of changes in marine species in the past 500-1000 years, creating historic visualisations of the marine environment, helping to guide the planning of marine protected areas. It will also contain information on environmental features such as seabed geology and ocean currents, providing a basis for studying changes in marine populations.

Ausubel said that researchers at 63 institutions in 15 countries had begun work on the Ocean Biogeographical Information System that will support the census and that he was now seeking Southern Hemisphere participation in the 10-year project, which began last year with a $4 million investment in a system for storing, linking and accessing census information.

It is believed that Australia has much to benefit from the census as, according to the Chief of CSIRO’s Marine Research, Dr Nan Bray, much of the nation’s marine region is yet to be explored. “At present funding levels, it will take another 100 years just to map Australia’s 11 million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone,” Bray said. “Intensive surveys have so far recorded only 5% of its physical terrain, and less than 2% of its marine life and habitats.”

The census itself will involve field projects designed to observe marine populations in a variety of regions. These will link with surveys conducted by marine laboratories and fisheries and environmental agencies. “Reliable, cost-effective techniques are being developed for surveying poorly-known marine communities such as those that inhabit the ocean floor,” Ausubel said. “These will enhance our understanding of ocean systems, such as the ecological processes that cause marine biodiversity to vary with latitude and across ocean basins.”

Advanced electronic data-storage tags will be used to track and monitor the behaviour of large animals at the top of the food chain, such as whales, sea turtles, and tuna, offering clues to the distribution and abundance of many other marine species.

The Census of Marine Life is led and guided by an international Scientific Steering Committee from marine research institutions in US, Europe and Japan. The committee is due to release a scientific strategy for the data collection component of the census later this year.

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