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Why a census?
The Census of Marine Life is a global network of researchers in more than 80 nations engaged in a 10-year scientific initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans. The world's first comprehensive Census of Marine Life - past, present, and future - will be released in 2010.
The stated purpose of the Census of Marine Life is to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life. Each plays an important role in what is known, unknown, and may never be known about what lives in the global ocean.
First, diversity. The Census aims to make for the first time a comprehensive global list of all forms of life in the sea. No such unified list yet exists. Census scientists estimate that about 230,000 species of marine animals have been described and reside in jars in collections in museums of natural history and other repositories. Since the Census began in 2000, researchers have added more than 5600 species to the lists. They aim to add many thousands more by 2010. The database of the Census already includes records for more than 16 million records, old and new. By 2010, the goal is to have all the old and the new species in an on-line encyclopedia with a webpage for every species. In addition, we will estimate how many species remain unknown, that is, remain to be discovered. The number could be astonishingly large, perhaps a million or more, if all small animals and protists are included. For comparison, biologists have described about 1.5 million terrestrial plants and animals.
Second, distribution. The Census aims to produce maps where the animals have been observed or where they could live, that is, the territory or range of the species. Knowing the range matters a lot for people concerned about, for example, possible consequences of global climate change.
Third, abundance. No Census is complete without measures of abundance. We want to know not only that there is such a thing as a Madagascar crab but how many there are. For marine life, populations are being estimated either in numbers or in total kilos, called biomass.