Human attention rightly focuses on the decline of biodiversity on land, but this should not happen at the expense of the oceans—attention to marine biodiversity is also urgently needed if we want to maintain a stable relationship between humans and the sea. The oceans have no owner and no single nation or international organization is liable for their health. As a consequence, the seas are under increasing pressure. Humankind is destroying the coastline and its protection against flooding, polluting coastal waters and critically changing the oceanic food webs by overfishing of the top predators over large parts of the world. Marine Protected Areas and Nature Reserves are now being established rapidly but not in areas beyond national jurisdiction which remain vulnerable to uncontrolled exploitation. This includes most of the open ocean and deep-water habitats on Earth and so, in fact, most of the planet.
Marine Biodiversity Research
We know more about the Moon than about the oceans and more money is spent on space research than on exploration of the deep sea, the last unknown habitat on Earth and one where exciting discoveries can still be made. As an example, since 1980 two new animal phyla have been discovered that are endemic to the marine environment and a whole series of new habitats have been found and explored in the last ten years. Even more recently is the exploration of the vast genetic and microbial diversity. The need for extended exploration is exemplified by programs such as the Census of Marine Life, a worldwide effort to explore and understand the biodiversity of the oceans.
An important product of marine biodiversity research should be the necessary knowledge and tools for adequately managing and protecting marine biodiversity. This requires knowledge on genetic and ecological mechanisms that control biodiversity (gene flow, dispersal, adaptive value of genetic polymorphisms, determination of dispersal and recruitment, species interactions including invasions, sediment transport, natural and human-induced catastrophes, etc.). It also requires knowledge on the functional role of biodiversity: what is the variability in genes, species and communities that is required for ‘normal’ or desirable ecosystem functioning; and models on dispersal of genes and organisms, species interactions and food webs, the interaction between food webs and biogeochemical fluxes, and impact assessment of diffuse and point source pollution, coastal constructions, mass tourism and global climate change.