Founding partners
School of Fish Swimming Over Coral

Our Mission

Enhancing ocean life discovery worldwide.

What we know

Imagine if the only way to explore a rainforest was to float above it in a hot air balloon while lowering a bucket down through the canopy in the hope of gathering a few leaves or insects?

You would barely touch the animals living within, let alone be able to understand the intricate connections between them. And the functioning of the forest and its benefits to the rest of the planet would also remain unknown.

We know from our research that there is a critical knowledge gap surrounding the diversity and distribution of marine life. The ocean is the largest ecosystem on Earth and harbours an unrivalled area of wilderness, making the preservation of its biodiversity crucial for ecological equilibrium and human well-being.

Alongside our Alliance partners and through the Ocean Census Science Network community, we’re building a diverse, global network and fostering collaboration to enhance ocean discovery efforts worldwide.

Scientists looking at ocean equipment

Discover Knowledge.

In numbers

71%

The ocean covers 71% of our planet, constituting the largest ecosystem on Earth.

2 million

1-2 million species are currently estimated to live in the ocean.

240,000

Approximately 240,000 marine species have been discovered and named to date.

13.5 years

The average length of time to describe a species from when it is first collected is around 13.5 years.

2,000

Around 2,000 species are discovered each year, on average — a figure that hasn’t changed significantly since the 1800s.

The Earth, as seen from space

Discover
Life.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF DISCOVERING OCEAN LIFE?

Scientific revolution

Discovering, sequencing and decoding the DNA of ocean life will radically advance the fundamental science of all life on Earth, climate regulation, food security, medicine, energy and other systems.

Conserve Life

Building the genetic reference libraries for ocean life will accelerate ocean conservation by enabling environmental DNA for biomonitoring and sustainable ocean governance.

Preserve Life

With the majority of species predicted to be lost during our Anthropocene Era, discovering ocean life now will help to preserve the legacy of four billion years of evolution for generations to come.

Benefit Life

Harnessing marine genetic resources will galvanise marine biotechnology industries, such as new drugs to treat disease and eco-chemicals for bioplastics.

Sustain Life

Advancing our scientific knowledge of ocean life will improve our ability to support, maintain and strengthen the ocean’s function to generate oxygen, regulate the climate and strengthen food security.

Our long-term goals

Explore

Undertake expeditions to collect species in biodiversity hotspots, prioritising taxa that are new to science or endangered.

Discover

Accelerate the speed of species discovery, setting humanity an ambitious target of finding 100,000 new species over the next decade.

Inspire

Raise public and policy interest and galvanise sustained action to protect ocean life.

Conserve

Increase the accessibility and interoperability of ocean life data in order to accelerate decision making and ensure open access and equitable use for the common good.

Sustain

Build an inclusive, international network of taxonomists and biodiversity experts in high, low and middle income countries.

Further Information

What is Ocean Census?

Ocean Census is the largest programme in history to discover life in our ocean, heralding a new era of pioneering research and scientific exploration to accelerate species discovery and protection. Recent technological advances in high resolution imaging, DNA sequencing, and machine learning mean scientists can now massively accelerate the process.

This will revolutionise our understanding of marine life, which lies largely undiscovered beneath the waves. Today, scientists believe they have described little over 10% of the species that exist. It is believed there are 2.2 million species in our ocean, to date about 240,000 have been described.

Ocean Census has set the ambitious target of finding at least 100,000 new marine species in the first decade.

We currently describe only around 2,000 new ocean species a year. The time from discovery to registration of new organisms can vary greatly depending on the species, existing species knowledge, the research entity, research method, and level of identification. This currently takes as little as one to two years and as long as several decades. That rate of discovery has changed little since the 1800s.

Who is involved in Ocean Census?

Ocean Census is driven through the collaboration of the Ocean Census Alliance, an open network of science, business, media and civil society organisations. It was co-founded by The Nippon Foundation, a private, non-profit foundation for social innovation, and Nekton, a UK-based marine science and conservation institute.

What is the estimated cost of Ocean Census?

The cost of Ocean Census is dependent on how large the initiative grows. Whilst the Nippon Foundation is providing the project’s initial core funding, the alliance of partners involved are committing their own resources to the global effort.

Why is it taking place?

Ocean life is fundamental to all life on Earth. It produces the oxygen we breathe, isolates carbon dioxide, creates food for billions of people and is constantly providing vital scientific advances to fight disease.

We urgently need to protect this precious resource and the life within it, but we can’t protect what we do not know.

Ocean Census will help to significantly advance our understanding of fundamental science – oxygen production, carbon cycling, sustainable food production, the evolution of life on Earth and discoveries of new medicine and biotechnologies.

Ocean Census will help to identify how marine ecosystems are responding to climate change, assessing how marine life could support climate adaptation and alleviate the impacts of climate change for the benefit of all. A recent IPBES-IPCC Co-Sponsored Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change showed strong linkages between measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change and biodiversity.

How will Ocean Census work?

  • Scientists from across the world will embark on expeditions to the ocean’s biodiversity hotspots to find new life from the surface to full ocean depth (10,925 metres).
      
  • Specimens will be sent to Ocean Census Biodiversity Centres which harness technological advances across high resolution imaging, DNA sequencing and machine learning to speed up and scale up the process of discovery.
      
  • Oxford is the headquarters of Ocean Census. As more partners get involved in high, middle-and low-income nations, more scientists and centres will participate.
      
  • Networks of taxonomists will connect virtually to draw on the aggregated data set created which will provide a complete picture of species discovery and description.
      
  • This aggregated, open-sourced data is added to a network of data centres globally and made freely accessible to scientists, marine policymakers and the public. We are working with these data centres to increase interoperability with a goal of having a single point of access – the Ocean Census Biodiversity System for scientists, decision makers, and the public.

Why should I care?

Ocean life makes all life on Earth possible and holds the wisdom of four billion years of evolution on Earth (life has existed in the ocean for three times longer than land). For context, 33 phyla are known in the Tree of Life, of which 32 are found in the ocean and 17 on land and in freshwater. Phyla are the major branches of ‘The Tree of Life’, how life is classified. Life in our ocean is responsible for much of the air we breathe, regulating our climate and Earth’s chemistry, and a vital food source for billions. To sustain and benefit life on Earth, we need to understand, protect and restore ocean life.

Who owns the data and is it ethical to take samples from the ocean, particularly in developing countries?

All data is open access for science, decision makers and the public for non-commercial use. All expeditions and research is co-produced hand-in-hand with host nation scientists and governments and the species, specimens, and related data discovered from territorial waters are owned by the host nation (under Nagoya Protocol and related laws). Under the UN Law of the Sea, species, specimens, and data from international waters are part of the collective commons, owned by the people of the planet and all data is open access for the common benefit of humankind.

What is the difference between a species being "described" versus "discovered"?

Species Described:

A species is classified as described when a peer-reviewed scientific paper is published that details the unique anatomical and genomic DNA sequences distinguishing the species from closely related species. A type specimen is designated and housed at a taxonomic institution such as a national museum, serving as the definitive example for the species description. Additional type specimens may be deposited at other institutions. On average, it takes 13.5 years from collection to publication of the description.

Species Discovered:

A marine species is classified as “discovered” by Ocean Census when an expert, using external and internal anatomical features and, ideally, DNA sequence data, identifies it as likely new. Voucher specimens are stored at taxonomic institutions for future detailed descriptions. These discoveries are intended to be digitally catalogued in the Ocean Census Cyberbiodiversity System.

Who will name the species?

Species from a nation’s territorial waters are given Latin names by the scientists doing the species descriptions where at all possible, in consultation with host nation scientists. A smaller number of species will be given Common Names by the people of the host nation of each expedition in a process that will be managed and guided by the scientists from the host nation. Species from international waters are given Latin names by the scientists doing the species descriptions with a small number of species to be given Common Names by the public. These protocols will be established in the first phase of the programme.

Is it too late?

No, it’s not too late. We have a short window of opportunity, perhaps the next ten years, when decisions we all make will likely affect the next thousand or even ten thousand years. We hope the giant leaps in knowledge we can make with the discovery of ocean life can help put us on a better track towards a positive future for people and the planet.

What does success look like and how will it be measured?

Success for us is ultimately helping to inform the protection and restoration of ocean life so that it can continue to support life on Earth. This requires a lot of other global issues to line up towards this outcome which are outside of our control. However, in terms of our contribution it will be measured by:

  • The number of species discovered – the goal is at least 100,000. Each one represents a vital piece of the code of life on earth – the more we discover, the more we understand how life exists and how to sustain and strengthen life in the ocean and therefore on Earth.
  • The range of discoveries, which will benefit all humankind – from oxygen production, carbon cycling, sustainable food production, the evolution of life on Earth and discoveries of new medicine and biotechnologies. 
  • The number of scientists involved, particularly taxonomists. Currently taxonomists are declining in number and are usually found in high-income nations. Success will be growing a network of scientists engaged in the discovery and conservation of ocean life – and notably, far more equitably distributed across the global ocean.

We have heard that many pharmaceuticals and cures have been found in the ocean. What do you expect to find?

Marine genetic resources are the genetic material present in all marine life and have been a source of many important pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and personal care products (e.g., currently 13 pharmaceutical drugs derived from marine organisms have been clinically approved, including treatments for cancer, neuropathic pain, COVID-19, HIV-AIDS and antivirals, with a further 24 marine-derived products in clinical trials and 250 in preclinical investigations).

Harnessing marine genetic resources will galvanise marine biotechnology industries including through the discovery of new drugs to treat disease and identifying bulk eco-chemicals and sustainable bioplastics. However, Ocean Census is not involved in bioprospecting nor any onward commercialisation.

Is the extraction of coral & other samples a harmful process?

Ocean Census will deploy high-precision sampling tools to collect corals and other large organisms. This means that a small number of individual samples will be collected and then preserved for further classification in museums or other laboratories. Sub-samples will be taken for DNA analysis. These organisms will be killed as part of this process but the number of samples will be minimised.

Smaller organisms that live in sand or mud will be collected as small samples of sediment, preserved and then later extracted. Again, bare minimum sampling will be undertaken.

Ocean Census may opportunistically collect specimens from fisheries surveys or other sources. These organisms would usually die as a result of collection but in this case they will be preserved for scientific description.

Are you using large vessels to carry out the research, isn't that bad for the environment?

Ocean Census will combine vessels from the philanthropic, government academic and commercial fleets. We are deploying a combination of advanced subsea technologies with divers, human submersibles, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). At present these vessels are generally powered by fuel oil and these do have a CO2 footprint. Our shore-based and nearshore expeditions will have a much lower carbon footprint. As the programme continues overtime, large hydrocarbon-powered vessels will likely be replaced by vessels powered by ammonium or hydrogen.

What if we fail?

The loss and destruction of ocean life is an existential crisis. Without ocean life, life on Earth will not continue as we know it. The more we can do right now, the more positive the impact we can have down the tracks.

How do I get involved?

Governments: Invite Ocean Census to work together to discover ocean life in your territorial waters and work with Ocean Census to develop or align research grants, research expeditions and scientists to advance research in ocean life.

Science: Collaborate on species discovery with the Ocean Census science team, take on a challenge to discover new species, contribute your new species to the global effort, register projects involved in the discovery of ocean life, register taxonomic skills and expertise.

Expeditions: Register your expedition to become an Official Ocean Census Expedition, participate or partner with Ocean Census on our expeditions, invite Ocean Census taxonomists to join your expedition, collaborate with marine operations – from vessels to subsea technology deployment and development.

Media: Engage with our media team for stories about ocean life, talk to us about sharing your stories of ocean life, ask for support to share your discoveries across news and social media, develop partnerships such as via education, creative projects or documentary.

Philanthropy: Co-develop programmes and funding to undertake Ocean Census activities across science, policy, expeditions, technology, engagement and/or capacity development, align existing initiatives with Ocean Census.

Business: Provide in-kind support to Ocean Census, co-develop and fund specific programmes including science, policy, expeditions, technology, engagement and/or capacity development, become an Ocean Census Sponsor with a bespoke range of partnership benefits.

Civil Society: Co-develop programmes that meet your own and the Ocean Census mission goals, align existing initiatives with Ocean Census.

How do I follow the programme?

The best way to follow our live expeditions and programme updates is via social media. You can also read our latest news updates via our website and subscribe to our newsletter:

Instagram: @oceancensus

Facebook: /oceancensus

LinkedIn: /oceancensus

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@oceancensus

Twitter: /oceancensus

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