Sunday, October 24, 2010

Citizens of the Sea: making sense of the marine census

The ocean is vast. For people to contemplate its complexity, requires years of study and an open and encyclopedic mind. So, for most of us, we focus our attention on areas of personal interest - a particular species like whales, sharks, or turtles; or ecosystems like coral reefs or saltwater marshlands - something we can wrap our thoughts around more easily. The big picture is often overwhelming and can lead us to believe that the oceans, overall, must be doing fine because there's just so much of it to go around.

With the recent completion of the Census of Marine Life, this 10-year project affords scientists, educators, and policy makers with a wealth of detailed information cataloged in a database of over 22 million entries - a snapshot of the ocean's biodiversity that is comprehensive and yet, by admission of those involved, just scratching the surface. Ian Poiner, chair of the Census Scientific Steering Committee, summed it up this way, "More than 2,000 scientists. 80-plus nations. 400 expeditions. $650 million. 10,000-plus possible new species. 2,500-plus publications."

One of those publications is Citizens of the Sea, written by one of the project's scientific leaders, Nancy Knowlton, Ph.D. (National Geographic Society, 2010). The book combines images and information from the census with a well-structured overview of the "who, why, and how many" of marine biodiversity that is both instructional and accessible. This is not a burdensome volume intended for just a researcher or academic; nor is it a literary softball catering to grade-schoolers. Knowlton's personable writing style affords her the ability to cover a lot of ground and provide the reader with an illuminating window into the aquatic world.

In a recent interview, I asked Dr. Knowlton about her involvement with the census and what the overall results have been:
RTSea: How did you first become involved in the Census of Marine Life?
NK: I was a member of the US National Committee on the Census of Marine Life (most of the world was represented by national or regional groups working on the Census). At one of our meetings we decided you can't have a Census of Marine Life without censusing coral reefs (the rainforests of the sea), which is how the coral reef program was launched and which I helped lead.
RTSea: What do you feel is the main contribution of the Census that sets it apart from other research?
NK: The census was the first of its kind to focus on the overall biodiversity of the entire ocean, and to link its past, present and future. There are many programs that have tackled specific ecological questions related to the sea, but biodiversity is often ignored. The problem is that except for a few groups (like fishes, corals and snails) we know so little that biodiversity is hard to study in its entirety.
RTSea: Will the Census be analyzing and drawing conclusions or basically providing data for others to work with?
NK: The Census has already analyzed and drawn many conclusions since it began ten years ago. But there is also a wealth of information in the giant electronic database that the Census created, which will continue to grow and inform future studies.

In tackling this "wealth of information" provided by the census, Citizens of the Sea focuses the first eleven chapters on the animals themselves then the last few chapters turn to interaction with man and, ultimately, the impact we are having on the oceans today. Each chapter includes
topics that are covered with a single page of text and an accompanying page of images from the census catalog. As an example, a chapter on Appearances Are Everything included topics like Blending In, Deception & Distraction, Standing Out, Stranger Than Fiction, and more. This helps to make the information easy to digest. In fact, I often set aside a few minutes, intent on reading a topic or two, and found myself having read twenty pages in no time.

Many of the most striking images included in Citizens of the Sea are those of the ocean's smaller creatures - which actually make up the greatest portion of the ocean's biomass. From bacteria to plankton to tiny pteropods, fish, and crabs; by sheer numbers the oceans truly belong to the smallest of creatures. While this expands our concept of marine diversity, it also highlights its fragility.

RTSea: What did you personally find to be the most remarkable find or findings from the Census?
NK: Well, our project found that there is more marine biodiversity in a couple of square meters (yards) of coral reef than in all of Europe's seas. I knew the biodiversity of reefs was enormous but that still really surprised me.
RTSea: What do you hope that the general public and/or the policy makers will learn from the Census?
NK: I hope they learn that biodiversity is fascinating, inspiring, and valuable, but cannot be taken for granted.

By examining many aspects of marine living with information on a variety of creatures, Citizens of the Sea deftly illustrates both the complexity and the commonality within marine biodiversity. From 200-ton blue whales to the 350,000 bacteria that can be found in a single drop of seawater, it is an astonishing web of life that must also depend on us as much as we depend on it.

RTSea: As a nature filmmaker, I am always concerned with finding the right balance between showing the beauty of nature and making sure that people realize the threats and damage nature is enduring. Are you concerned that the Census, theorizing that there are millions of species in the sea, might make some believe that the oceans are healthy and less threatened than others would have us believe?
NK: This is always a potential problem, but I think the Census did a good job in doing both - celebrating diversity while documenting what we have already lost or could easily lose.
RTSea: What do you hope readers will take away by reading Citizens of the Sea; what do you hope it will motivate them to do?
NK: The sea is a wondrous place but we need to take care of it. There is an almost infinite variety in the way marine creatures make a living, and even though we don't live in the sea, we depend on it. The Citizens of the Sea both amaze and amuse us, in addition to providing much of the oxygen that we breathe and the food that we eat. But they cannot vote and are counting on us to protect them.

With engaging writing, a bevy of sidebar facts, and striking photographs, Citizens of the Sea offers something for everyone - from those studying the oceans to the mildly curious to, well, those who just don't have a clue. It succeeds in framing the big picture of marine biodiversity as a nation of interdependent citizens who can't vote but rely on the roles given to each by nature as a means of survival of the whole.

As outsiders, what kind of diplomacy shall mankind exercise? Are we to be good neighbors or invading plunderers?

Citizens of the Sea is available at National Geographic, Amazon, and other bookstores.

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