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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 October, 2003, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
Ocean census discovers new fish
By Julianna Kettlewell
BBC News Online staff

The Census of Marine Life
A new species of scorpionfish was discovered
More than 600 new species of fish have been discovered by a major ocean census and thousands more may be lurking undetected.

Some 300 scientists from 53 countries are creating a record of all known marine life, in a project reminiscent of an aquatic Domesday Book.

The 10-year Census of Marine Life project will form an open database of raw material available to everyone.

It will pinpoint endangered animals and suggest how to protect them.

Pole to pole

So far, 15,304 species of fish have been logged. Between 2,000 and 3,000 more are expected to join the list before the census ends in 2010 - and many will be previously unknown species.

We are at the start of a great adventure, like going to the moon
Jesse Ausubel, census Program Director
Apart from cataloguing species diversity, distribution and abundance, the census will explain how ocean life changes over time and in the face of human activity.

Extending from pole to pole and covering virtually every ocean, the Census of Marine Life (CoML) is easily the most ambitious and costly project of its kind.

Much of the $1bn bill will be footed by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation - a philanthropic non-profit organisation - and individual governments.

The unknown ocean

The census is divided into seven parts. As well as Pacific shorelines and the North Atlantic sea floor, scientists are examining the Gulf of Maine, hydrothermal vents, coastal salmon runs, the world wide habits of large fish and mammals, and animals of the abyss.

The first census report just published outlines how the understanding of these seven topics has advanced since the initiative began three years ago.

One "hot pot" of discovery has been the deep waters off Angola. Researchers exploring the abyssal sediments found an environment with more species per area than any other known aquatic environment on Earth.

The Census of Marine Life
New species of grenadiers found in the western Mediterranean
About 500 of the species collected are thought to be new to science. Experts hope that the research will improve understanding of the relationship between deep-sea species diversity and the richness of food in the water column.

The report also highlights the habits of young salmon during the sea dwelling stage of their lives, challenging conventional ideas about their survival.

"Most of the attention on salmon has been in rivers," Mike Vecchione, a scientist at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, told BBC News Online.

"But the census has found that most deaths of young salmon occur in the open ocean. This information may be key to maintaining their populations."

Long journey

This is not the first survey into marine life. Numerous catalogues of aquatic creatures are available to the public, but the Census of Marine Life claims to be a league apart.

"Most other marine surveys concentrate on commercially important species or charismatic animals like sharks or whales, but we are casting our net far wider," said Jesse Ausubel, Program Director of CoML.

Over the next seven years, the census hopes to bring the number of marine species on the database to well over 210,000.

They also plan to establish pharmaceutical uses for some of the new species discovered.

Less than 14 kilometres off the Florida Keys, scientists recently discovered a new species - perhaps even a new genus - of sponge, which has been nicknamed the "Rasta sponge". Chemical compounds found in the sponge may help treat cancerous tumours.

But those involved in the census acknowledge they are still at the beginning of a very long voyage.

"Some 95% of the ocean is still unexplored biologically. We don't know what that figure will be in 2010, but we hope it will be much smaller," Mr Ausubel said.

"We hope we will have visited and sampled all the major domains of the ocean.

"We are at the start of a great adventure, like going to the Moon," he added. "But we know more about the surface of the Moon."

The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"Scientists discover three new species of fish every week"

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