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Achievements in Biological Oceanography

Richard T. Barber and Anna K. Hilting

Duke University, NSOE Marine Laboratory


For the Ocean Studies Board's examination of achievements of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in ocean research, we have been asked "to focus on the landmark achievements in biological oceanography in the past 50 years, the individuals involved, the new technology and ideas that made these achievements possible, how one discovery built on the foundations of earlier ones, discoveries made at the intersections of disciplines, and the role that NSF programs and institutional arrangements had in making these achievements possible."

The period addressed, the first 50 years of the National Science Foundation, has been a heady time for biological oceanography, and identification of landmark achievements of this period is a fitting tribute for the 1998 International Year of the Ocean. The pace of biological investigation of the ocean quickened as this period began in the 1950s. To appreciate the magnitude of the acceleration, a brief look at biological oceanography in the first half of this century is useful.

Before World War II, biological oceanography had two main themes. The first and more important by far was as a handmaiden to fisheries science. Where were exploitable resources, why did they vary so in abundance, and how could more resources be found? These were the demanding questions asked of biological oceanography. These questions, particularly the old question of why recruitment to exploitable fish stocks varies so much from year to year and from place to place (Hjort, 1926), have proved to be profoundly complex questions that biological oceanography still struggles with today (cf. the current Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics [GLOBEC] program).

The second major theme was discovery per se. Exotic and strange animals, and to a lesser degree plants, commanded interest among scientists as well as the general public; they illustrated the marvels of adaptation and evolution. Exploration for its own sake has always motivated biological oceanographers, but as the discipline matured, this motivation became less fashionable. NSF has never supported biological oceanographers for the sole purpose of looking for strange new organisms, yet discovery is what makes biological oceanography so much fun.

After World War II the climate of oceanographic research was different. One of the authors (RTB) spent an undergraduate summer in Woods Hole in the mid-1950s, a time when the overriding impression was that there were many exciting questions and unlimited opportunities. Ideas newly aired then were the ecosystem constructs of the Odum brothers (Odum and Odum, 1955), the quantitative and predictive plankton studies of Riley (1946), and the elegant ecology and evolution theories of Hutchinson (1961); the brilliance of these ideas inspired students and researchers. The relative merits of applied versus basic research became a topic of frequent discussion. At the same time, the distance between biological oceanography and fisheries science widened here in the United States until, by the 1960s, there was little significant intellectual exchange between the two disciplines. A few iconoclastic individuals argued for studying ocean biology whether or not an application for the new knowledge could be envisioned, implying that knowledge per se was good.

In addition to knowledge for the sake of knowledge, there arose in the postwar period the specter of pollution and the notion that it was necessary to know how the ocean functioned to avoid inadvertently destroying it. All of these needs or objectives—food from the ocean, discovery, knowledge for its own sake, and the custodial sense arising from pollution concerns—provided motivations to expand and reshape the field. But by far the most important impetus driving the expansion of biological oceanography was the cornucopia of new resources available for science.

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