It may seem that the significance of descriptions of species and other types of taxonomic studies
reside in historical times when ocean exploration was in its infancy and faunas and floras of many regions were poorly known.
In fact, systematic studies remain as vital today, if not more so, than they have been throughout human history.
The rate at which new marine species are discovered is not declining, leading to one inescapable conclusion.
We are far from knowing all the species living in the oceans. Thus, continued need exists for inventorying the nation’s (and world’s) marine biota.
Given that conservative estimates for the number of marine species is in the millions and that unknown species greatly exceed documented species,
21st century scientists, policy makers and the public face enormous challenges in addressing questions that require reliable taxonomic information.
Listed below are questions of contemporary relevance for which the strength of the answers provided will fundamentally be determined by the
quality and comprehensiveness of the underpinning foundation of knowledge that is based on species identifications derived from systematic studies.
How are we to understand how ecosystems function, or attempt to manage these ecosystems, if we lack adequate, baseline knowledge concerning
the species that constitute the biological components of these systems? How will we know and quantify changes in the composition and abundance
of individual species found within local marine communities if we can not identify these species? How will we recognize bioindicators of
oceanographic changes related to natural and anthropogenic influences, if we can not distinguish individual species? How will we begin to assess
impacts of broad-scale changes in climate on faunal communities if we do not know the content of those communities to begin with? And as we
progress towards globalization of marine faunas through ballast-water transport and other means of invasion, how are we to identify marine
invasive species and their impacts on local communities if we lack the basic systematic knowledge concerning species identification?
With global development of marine fisheries and global marketing of marine fishery products, the need for taxonomic expertise in identifying
species composition of fishery products imported into the U.S. also increases. As U.S. population demographics change, so does utilization of
different (including non-traditional) fishery-related food sources. Consequently, with changes in consumer preferences, fishery resources have
expanded to include faunal groups for which little or no reliable taxonomic information exists. Accurate taxonomic identifications are required
if we are to successfully quantify the importance of individual species in these resources and before we can begin to manage these resources
Unfortunately, expertise to conduct such inventories is compromised by a declining trend in the world-wide number of practicing taxonomists.
Development of global projects such as the Census of Marine Life Initiative,
Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS),
the Consortium for Barcode of Life,
the ITIS names database, and the Assembling
the Tree of Life Initiative, further increase the need for expertise in systematics. Regrettably, decline in the number of professionally
trained taxonomists greatly limits progress towards completing
an inventory of the world’s biota. NOAA’s role in continuing to support the research leading to species discoveries is as crucial as ever.