Scientists take $1-billion census of marine life

Scientists from 53 countries aim to catalog all life in world's oceans by 2010.

An international group of scientists met in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to report on their project to catalogue all life in the world's oceans.

The Census of Marine Life has been underway for three years and is scheduled to run until 2010.

So far, researchers have found hundreds of new species of fish, plants and animals, including a soft coral with starry feathers and a purple orchid animal that scientists are having difficulty classifying.

The census began because of scientists' concerns after a 1995 report by the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. found that human population growth was rapidly reducing the diversity of life in the oceans.

Researchers from 53 countries are also collecting data about species endangered by pollution, climate change and overfishing.

They say the gaps in knowledge appear as wide as the unexplored sea.

"Less than 1/10th of one per cent of the ocean has ever been sampled," said Ronald O'Dor, a squid biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and chief scientist for the census.

"When you start looking at the things that live in the sand and in the mud or in the mid-water column, you don't have to go very far off away from the shore to find new mysteries."

O'Dor calls the $1-billion US project a race against extinction.

"It literally is a race," he said. "We want to know what's here, and we want to provide a baseline against which people can measure changes."

Scientists say they are making progress. Dr. David Welch of Vancouver heads a field project for the census called Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking.

Welch implants transponders in salmon and then traces the fish to remote listening stations.

"We can completely count even small animals, the size of, say, a canned sardine, and therefore we can tell you what areas of the West Coast have good survival for salmon stocks."

His project will cost $10 million a year to run.

Environmentalists hope to use the data to fight overfishing and marine pollution. Industry aims for more efficient shipping and fishing, new pharmaceuticals and industrial compounds.