Evaluating the scale and consequences of changes in the ocean's biodiversity due to human activities is, however, seriously compromised by critically inadequate knowledge of the patterns and the basic processes that control the diversity of life in the sea.
The basic description of marine biodiversity trails that of the terrestrial realm, particularly as it relates to the extraordinary diversity of higher taxa in the marine compared to the terrestrial environment. Continuing discoveries of new families, orders, and even phyla of marine organisms foretell a wealth of biodiversity yet to be realized.
Like terrestrial habitats, there are vast numbers of undescribed species in familiar oceanic habitats, such as coral reefs and temperate bays and estuaries. There are environments, like the deep sea and polar regions, that are so under-sampled that numerous new species are discovered during each expedition to a new area. Newly recognized biological habitats that contain novel species assemblages—such as hydrothermal vents, whale carcasses, brine seeps, and wood debris—continue to emerge, especially in deep water. Moreover, understanding of the mechanisms responsible for the creation, maintenance, and regulation of such habitat-specific marine biodiversity is incomplete, fragmentary, or entirely lacking.
Yet exciting new information, novel techniques, and heightened awareness now permit dramatically improved sampling and species identifications and process-oriented research at increasingly larger geographic scales. Such studies have been previously intractable, but are fundamentally required to understand the consequences of anthropogenic changes to the diversity of marine life.
This report identifies the urgent need for a national research program on Biological Diversity in Marine Systems and outlines a research agenda. This research agenda proposes a fundamental change in the approach by which biodiversity is measured and studied in the ocean by emphasizing an integrated regional-scale research strategy within an environmentally relevant and socially responsible framework. This is now possible because of recent technological and conceptual advances within the ecological, molecular, and oceanographic sciences.
Propelled by the need to understand the effects of human activities on biodiversity, this research program would require studies conducted at appropriately large temporal and spatial scales. Given the open nature of marine systems, a regional-scale approach must be taken, one that involves studying multiple, separate sites within a large geographic region. Biological and physical criteria would be used to define this region—that is, to set the maximum spatial and temporal scales required to characterize those processes that control local biodiversity. This decadal-time-scale research program would integrate ecological