In the year 2010, ten years of painstaking research and international collaboration came together to produce one of the great scientific achievements of the recent times: the World Census of Marine Life.
Bringing together more than 2,700 researchers from 80 countries and mounting 540 expeditions, the census counted more than 250,000 species in the entire globe, and of those, 6,000 were previously unknown.
In the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Humboldt Current, which sweeps down Chile’s Pacific coastline, 10,201 species were discovered, including 15 new species.
But far from just being among of the statistics, Chile was actively engaged in recording them, sending a delegation of 23 scientists to form part of the international team, including the project Vice President Víctor Gallardo, oceanographer of the Universidad de Concepción.
Now, Gallardo, far from resting on the achievements of the international census, wants to do the whole thing all over again, but this time, focused solely on Chilean waters.
The scientist from Universidad de Concepción will be a part of a team of 62 scientists from 20 Chilean universities, who will undertake the first Chilean marine census in the country’s history.
The project – which will require US$157 million in funding – now has the support and collaboration of institutions like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from the United States and the Chilean Environment Ministry.
Beginning in 2013, the Chilean Marine Census, just like the worldwide investigation, will last 10 years, and right now, scientists can only speculate as to how many new species it will uncover.
Delving into the unknown
According to the Chilean oceanographer, there are approximately 6,000 marine species that have been discovered in Chilean waters to date. This means that, according to the textbooks, there is one species for every 230 square miles (600 km2) of surface area of Chile’s oceanic territories.
According to Gallardo, what that figure really represents, is a “total lack of knowledge.”
And although the principal objective of the ten year investigation is to fill in this gap, it is by no means the only thing scientists are hoping to establish.
The project aims to create a network of local and international experts on Chilean marine biodiversity, discovering more about Chile’s largely untouched austral waters, and establishing museums and information centers and a database of the genetic and biological information.
“This could be highly relevant not only from a scientific point of view, but an economic viewpoint as well,” Gallardo told La Tercera. “The genetic resources that we have could be an important income source in the future, and the sooner we start with this, the better.”
But the scientist insists that the first step must be a thorough knowledge of the extent of biodiversity in Chilean waters – and he is not only speaking of fish, molluscs or crustaceans.
The study also expects to turn up hundreds of thousands of bacteria, some of which produce enzymes that can be applied to research, technology and design – in fact, products as common as detergents use derivatives from marine enzymes, and at the other end of the spectrum, anti-cancer treatments are being developed from them as well.
The information will also be made available to educational facilities through an extensive library of books, images and videos.