That means that there are an estimated two million species that we have not yet discovered. Until now, we have been finding an average of 2,300 ocean species each year. This rate has stayed the same since the 1800s. Currently, there is an added urgency as the ocean is being affected by the biodiversity and climate crises. Understanding and protecting the ocean is critical in facing both these challenges.
In 2023, The Nippon Foundation and Nekton joined forces to change the way we discover ocean life. Ocean Census is a moonshot initiative aiming to discover 100,000 new species in the next ten years. It is built on a suite of new technologies from high-resolution imaging to machine learning and DNA sequencing.
The science of discovering and naming species, known as taxonomy, may seem abstract and technical, but understanding life on our planet and in our ocean lies at the heart of protecting it. Life began in the ocean four billion years ago, and we can trace that evolutionary heritage through the kingdoms and phyla, classes and species that we find in the ocean today.
Together this life has made the planet habitable. It has provided the air we breathe. Today, billions rely on ocean life for food. The ocean also regulates our climate and is our medicine cabinet. As Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, reminds us, “Without the oceans, there would be no life on Earth.”
Over the next ten years, Ocean Census will see scientists embark on a series of expeditions to biodiversity hotspots across the world’s ocean. From the surface to full ocean depth at 10,925 metres, specimens are being collected and sent to a network of Ocean Census Biodiversity Centres. Here, the specimens are analysed using new cyber taxonomy technologies. The resulting data is shared online, allowing science teams to build a more complete picture of life in the ocean.
The ultimate aim is for these data and the stories of the expeditions to engage decision-makers are all levels from individuals and communities, to national governments and international organisations. There is a narrow window to safeguard the ocean and its life, and in so doing support humanity’s challenge of living in harmony with the rest of nature.
We are in a race against time to discover ocean life before it is lost for generations to come. Ocean Census will create an immense wealth of openly accessible knowledge that will benefit and sustain all life on earth, for humankind and our planet.