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Taking a Census of World's Seas

Scientists are surveying all life that relies on the largely unexplored oceans, damaged by pollution, climate change and overfishing.

September 21, 2003|Joseph B. Verrengia | Associated Press Writer

KACHEMAK BAY, Alaska — Brenda Konar shoots an anxious glance over her shoulder but keeps chiseling. The Pacific Ocean hasn't gone away. In fact, it's gaining on her.

Wedged between slimy boulders, the University of Alaska marine biologist hacks at the crusty stuff clinging to the ragged shoreline of the Kenai Peninsula. Frigid seawater seeps through the duct-tape patch on her rubber waders. Her knuckles bleed.

Soon, the world's second-largest tides will submerge this speck called Cohen's Island, 250 miles southwest of Anchorage.

"We're in so much trouble," Konar mutters into the wind and rain.

Halfway around the world, Mike Vecchione shudders as Russian deckhands slap the metal hull of his tiny submarine. In any language, that echo means "Good to go!"

To where? To a place two dark miles at the bottom of the North Atlantic, to a spot disconcertingly named the "Charley Gibbs Fracture Zone." The pressure down there would crumple a truck.

The Smithsonian biologist curls up on a cushion as a mechanical crane dangles his vessel over the ocean like a drip from a faucet.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," he says in a whisper.

From pole to pole, in virtually every ocean, scientists from two dozen nations are wrapping up preliminary field studies. Together, the studies will serve as the foundation for the most extensive project of its kind -- the Census of Marine Life.

The census seeks a fundamental understanding of all life that relies on the largely unexplored seas covering most of Earth, increasingly damaged by pollution, overfishing and climate change.

This unprecedented field guide to millions of species is supposed to be completed in 10 years. It could cost as much as $1 billion, much of it funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and governments.

It's a staggering budget. But it's a fraction of the $55-billion seafood trade or what it costs to clean up a major oil spill.

The census is divided into seven topics. Besides Pacific shorelines and the North Atlantic sea floor, scientists are examining the Gulf of Maine, hydrothermal vents, coastal salmon runs, the worldwide habits of large fish and mammals, and animals of the abyss.

"We're asking scientists to think beyond their own quarter-mile of beach," said Ronald K. O'Dor, a Nova Scotia squid expert who moved to Washington to coordinate the census. "We don't know what we'll find. We don't even know what we are looking for."

Scientists expect that the census will shed new light on Earth's fundamental processes, like evolution and climate. But others expect that it will serve more practical purposes.

Environmentalists will use it to identify threatened species and locations for marine parks. Fishing and shipping interests believe that the observations will make them more efficient -- and profitable. And bio-prospectors hope that the census will yield a bounty of new materials and compounds, ranging from medicines to industrial adhesives.

The census begins in earnest at a time when the ocean's bounty suddenly appears alarmingly skimpy. Large fish have been depleted by 90% since World War II.

"People think of space being the final frontier, but most of our planet is very poorly known," Vecchione said. "You can't protect something that you don't understand, and you can't use something that you haven't inventoried."

So far, the most startling results have come from the fish-taggers. Biologists attach digital instruments to the backs of the oceans' most athletic swimmers and fearsome hunters. Known collectively as pelagics, these tuna, humpback whales, elephant seals, Humboldt squid, even sea turtles are tracked by satellite on their mysterious journeys.

Early data from 700 Atlantic bluefin tuna demonstrate that fish from different regions commingle freely during migrations ranging from the Texas coast to the Mediterranean.

The results challenge assumptions that bluefin populations never mix, and that fleets can intensively harvest particular regions -- such as the Flemish Cap off the east coast of Canada -- without harming stocks throughout the hemisphere.

The stakes are huge. Globally, 3 million tons of tuna are processed annually. A bluefin weighs more than an NFL lineman and can fetch $175,000 at a Tokyo seafood market.

But the bluefin population has been plummeting since the 1980s. International commissions are already using tagging data to establish more restrictive quotas.

Beginning this fall, scientists will begin tracking thousands of additional pelagics to address broader scientific questions. Among them: In the vastness of the oceans, does marine life scatter or does it behave similarly to terrestrial life and congregate?

Early tagging data suggests some surprising similarities.

"There are hints of shared corridors that different animals are using and places they will loiter, like watering holes," said biologist Randy Kochevar of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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