Over a century later, the Census of Marine Life picked up the baton. An 80-country collaboration, with 2,700 scientists, the project identified another 6,000 species. Yet even these numbers are a literal drop in the ocean. The total library of known marine species stands at 240,000, but estimates put the real figure at 2.2 million at the least. The rate of discovery, around 2,000 per year, has barely changed since the Victorian era.
A new mission, the Ocean Census, launched in April this year with a far greater ambition: to find at least 100,000 new marine species in its first decade. This reflects an urgency that earlier voyagers lacked. Warming water and oxygen depletion portend a mass extinction event for marine biodiversity. This is a make-or-break decade to identify as much marine life as we can, to better protect it. The first ship, a Norwegian icebreaker, ventured into the Barents sea in late April.
The initiative, founded by the Nippon Foundation and Nekton, will deploy more advanced technologies, from sea-faring vessels, subsea technology and undersea robots to classification powered by artificial intelligence (AI), operating through a global network of experts, participation institutions and citizen scientists. “There is great urgency to discover what lives in our oceans so that we can use that information, that data, to inform sustainable management governance and unlock a deeper understanding of what ocean life is all about,” says Oliver Steeds OBE, the project’s director.