Scientists from around the world, including a team from Maine, are gathering in London today to unveil the results of a 10-year global study of ocean life.
The international Census of Marine Life identified new species of fish and other creatures and advanced the understanding of ocean dynamics and ecology, said Lewis Incze, a scientist at the University of Southern Maine who led the effort in the Gulf of Maine. Incze and four other Maine researchers will help present the international report today.
Nearly 200 scientists from Maine and Canada contributed to the Gulf of Maine research, which was funded primarily by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Research cruises and submarine expeditions found previously unidentified species, including corals living nearly a mile beneath the surface just outside the gulf. The research also improved scientists’ understanding of natural cycles in the gulf that affect life, from tiny plankton to massive whales.
“It’s not necessarily (about) naming every species,” Incze said before departing for London. “While that’s interesting, it doesn’t tell you how they function.”
Some of Incze’s research, for example, focused on plankton and whales on Platts Bank, a small underwater mountain more than 30 miles east of Cape Elizabeth.
Incze’s team measured invisible underwater waves that flow across the bank and create surface surges that push floating plankton around in ways that seem unpredictable, except to the whales that eat it.
“The whales actually profit from it tremendously. They understand patterns and take advantage,” he said.
The census also showed that the entire Gulf of Maine, from the intertidal zone to deep basins, has been affected by humans, according to Incze. Impacts such as fishing, habitat damage, pollution and invasive species have altered species and ecosystems in ways that have yet to be fully understood, he said.
Incze said the 10-year-research project is intended to be a first step and a guide for future research.
“There are still lots of things not known about the gulf. We can’t learn everything all at once,” he said. “If the ocean is supposed to be managed more intelligently going forward, we’ve got to make the data accessible.”
The census showed that the Gulf of Maine is home to more than 4,000 named species, ranging from microscopic plankton to 70-foot fin whales. That is more than twice the number estimated by scientists at the beginning of the project, and more new species are expected to be named over time.
“Even in this well-studied area, there may be several thousand species yet to be identified as living here,” according to Incze.
Thirteen new species were identified, including seven new deep-sea corals. Other organisms collected during research cruises are being classified.
Researchers also found that habitat features such as bottom type, temperature and bottom stress due to currents and storms explain about one-third of the variation in distribution and abundance of many fish and invertebrates in Gulf-wide surveys.
And they concluded that, while much is known about larger, commercial and near-shore organisms, more research is needed on smaller, non-commercial and deep-water organisms to understand and manage the entire Gulf of Maine.
Gulf of Maine researchers contributed nearly 750,000 data records of species and their distributions into a global database called the Ocean Biogeographic Information System.
The Maine team led by Incze is part of the USM Aquatic Systems Group, based at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: