25 August 2015

FishBase at 25: transcending the impossible

Poster by R. Atanacio

“It always seems impossible until it’s done” – Nelson Mandela

Ideas are not entirely original. They are built on something that was conceived long before, sitting atop each other as an idea reaches new horizons.  And they become so much more, sometimes way beyond what was once conceived. When people are curious enough to embrace ideas and the “what could be’s” that come with it, the impossible becomes less daunting.

Such rings true in the creation of FishBase.  With brilliant, hardworking individuals willing to collaborate, the world is sure to conspire in making a vision a stark reality. It didn’t come easy as most successful stories are. Most of the time it’s grueling - but FishBase stood firm on its vision. Finally the story can be told.

In 1986, Walter Fischer (FAO) created a global database (SPECIESDAB) encompassing basic information on important, commercially exploited fish and invertebrates. Drawing inspiration from this idea, Daniel Pauly suggested the transfer of  his compilation of fish population dynamics data to a standardized database in 1987. Who would have imagined that Pauly’s collection of 630 note cards would become a worldwide phenomenon known as FishBase 25 years later? The catalyst spinned off a series of events - from a raw idea, to the prototype and to the dynamic database FishBase is known for today. 

Rainer Froese, from the Institut für Meereskunde, in Kiel, Germany, implemented Pauly’s idea, and together with inputs from ICLARM scientists along with their programmers, the design of what to become as FishBase was conceived. Data entry kicked off in 1988, with only two research assistants, Susan M. Luna and Belen Acosta.

What is more valuable than a lasting partnership with key institutions that share noble interests? Collaboration, as stressed by reviewers, should be at the core of widening the scope and improving FishBase. This led to ICLARM and FAO forging a partnership in 1989. This allowed coordination of developments in FishBase and SPECIESDAB – a relationship which helped acquire FishBase’s first grant from European Commission. On-board and ready to set sail, FishBase became one of ICLARM’s major projects in 1990. With a clear-cut target, full-time data entry on all finfish species began. Transfer of tables to a more powerful relational database, Microsoft Access, became possible in 1994.

Restrictions in mass CD-ROM production did not hinder FishBase from its first wide release. Efforts paid off and there came 130 copies of FishBase 100, the first mass-produced version of FishBase in 1995. The successive release of 1000 copies of FishBase 1.2 hooked more than 160 collaborators and more than 400 recipients. Nature commended the capacities of FishBase 1.2. Another feat was achieved as FishBase 96 became the first fully tested version of FishBase, garnering 1000 users, more collaborators, ACP-EU grant, and a breakthrough in the number of users in developing countries. Reviews of FishBase from a number of journals pointed out that if gaps are to be bridged and collaboration more broadened, FishBase is certain to become an indispensable database.

The proponents knew that the database can do so much. How much more if it successfully pervades the Internet? FishBase became online in 1998. In two years, the turn of a new century made FishBase an Internet sensation, with over 30,000 unique users, covering 60,000 user sessions, and gaining recognition from USA Today as the number of hits reached 554,000 in March 2000.

Another celebration was at the corner as FishBase hit the coveted ceiling of 25,000 known fish species in August 2000. Today, the premiere database contains 33,208 valid extant species, more than 300,000 common names, 9,000 population dynamics data, 11,000 biological and ecological information, and 58,000 pictures, among other information relevant to fishery science. To this date, FishBase boasts of a suite of tools and modules relevant to research and teaching biodiversity, fisheries conservation and management.

Practically, as the longest running project conceived to initially populate 2,000 species, FishBase has carved a niche in the field of biological information systems with over 1,700 citations worldwide and 0.6 million web visits by 0.3 million users globally.

FishBase is a considerable feat of knowledge, vision, and resilience. It has surpassed challenges of every sort in its 25 years of exceptional journey. What started as a small initiative has gained the respect and recognition of the whole world today.

19 August 2015

In retrospect: sharing the SeaLifeBase story

The ocean is teeming with life that one cannot possibly fathom all its deepest secrets. But if substantial information is crunched into its juicy bits and made cohesive, it is certain to be useful in marine studies and conservation. 

The emergence of a global database SeaLifeBase in 2005 is one of the answers to making sure that all the remaining sea creatures other than fishes can share the limelight. The noble proponents of this project are Dr. Daniel Pauly (Principal Investigator) and Maria Lourdes D. Palomares (Project Coordinator); it is a joint initiative of the Sea Around Us (Fisheries Centre, UBC, Vancouver, Canada) and the FishBase Information and Research Group, Inc. (FIN). Also, it is endorsed and monitored by the FishBase Consortium. In essence, it emulates the highly-commended framework of FishBase, aiming to provide key information on scientific and common names, distribution, ecology and life history data for all multi-celled marine organisms of the world’s oceans. Its taxonomic backbone is the Catalogue of Life which is refined by expert-reviewed taxonomic data of the World Register of Marine Species.

The SeaLifeBase (SLB) encoding team is based in the Philippines. Data entry began in 2005 with only three research assistants Christine Dar-Sicada, Marianne Pan-Saniano, and Patricia Marjorie Sorongon-Yap, under the guidance of Maria Lourdes Palomares. The AquaSpecies Workshop was a good starting point for SLB as it formed collaborations with marine experts around the globe. Determined to make the database a reality, the SLB team completed more than 11,500 species, specifically marine mammals, marine reptiles, marine worms and other small groups.

The wait was over as SeaLifeBase finally became a searchable online information system in 2008. It secured the domain www.sealifebase.org, reaching 13,000 hits per month during the first six months.  Widening its presence in the marine scientific community was made possible  as it was introduced in the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Spain. 

In 2010, SeaLifeBase ventured into documenting the marine biodiversity of South China Sea, the large marine ecosystem that contains the Coral Triangle. Then on, it successfully provided mandatory information to almost 50,000 species. Resolute to achieve a firm footing, SLB shifted its target goal into working one marine ecosystem at a time, with its long-term goal of covering all 66 large marine ecosystems.

The decision to accomplish one ecosystem at a time was a heyday for SeaLifeBase, and most importantly to our precious marine folks. SLB became a vital advocate in putting a stop to drilling in Belize barrier reef when the team was commissioned in 2011 to provide key data on its marine biodiversity. Work progressed and other island ecosystems considered as large marine protected areas were covered, including Southern Oceans, Kermadec Islands, Pitcairn Islands and the Mediterranean Sea. Collaborators, coming from 46 countries, doubled to 200.

In three years SeaLifeBase covereded eight island ecosystems: Kerguelen, Crozet, Terre Adélie, Kermadec, Easter, Pitcairn, and Belize. Labor in research and much-appreciated collaboration resulted to 94,326 species pumped up with ecological and biological information. In 2012, it reached a monthly average of 2,772,669 hits with 8,792 unique visitors.

Sailing forward on island ecosystem projects from 2013 to the present, more commissioned work on  the Sailish, Baltic, and North Seas, some major Mediterranean Islands, the Western Indian Ocean, French Polynesia, Palau and New Caledonia were completed. For the entire 2014, SLB garnered 12,238,587 hits with 129,775 unique users. 

Today, SLB  hosts information for all non-fish marine vertebrates, tunicates, cephalopods and other small groups of mollusks and jellyfishes. Aside from nomenclature and distribution data, SLB actively provides information on population dynamics, trophic ecology, and abundance.

As of August 2015, SeaLifeBase contains over 71,500 species (57,090 species with ecology information, 48,767 species for 170 marine ecosystems, 56,578 species with reproduction information, 1,918 species with morphological data) described by 34,587 common names, with 15,354 food item records, 515 diet records, 9,090 abundance records, 4,561 predator records, 3,040 growth records, 1,604 introduction records and 12,342 pictures gathered from 24,621 references. Moreover, SLB has garnered 260 collaborators worldwide.

Embracing the gift of sharing free and relevant information its proponents have perpetuated, SeaLifeBase with its seven members alongside their project coordinator, will carry on and pursue its goal – forming meaningful collaborations, tapping what is available, and providing relevant and far-reaching information to attain its long-term goal of completing all large marine ecosystems. 

14 August 2015

13th Annual FishBase Symposium centers on harnessing global information databases for teaching and research

For more than a decade now, the FishBase Symposium is being held in tandem with the FishBase Consortium Annual Meeting. This year, the 13th Annual Symposium will be celebrating the 25th year of FishBase and 10th year of SeaLifeBase.

The annual FishBase Symposium will be held here in the Philippines in Los Baños from September 1 to 4, with FishBase Information Research Group, Inc. (FIN) as the host. The event is generously sponsored by Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR), Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Developmet (PCAARDD) , Oceana, WorldFish, SEARCA, Biodiversity Management Bureau, Asian Development Bank, Asean Centre for Biodiversity, Manila Ocean Park,  Mundus maris, World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International - Philippines. This year’s theme, “FishBase and SeaLifeBase for Teaching and Research in Aquatic Science” will focus on how FishBase and SeaLifeBase can be utilized as powerful tools in teaching and research in the Philippines as well as increasing public awareness on the databases, promoting their various applications in sustainable fisheries management, biodiversity conservation and environmental protection.

FIN is guided scientifically by a Consortium of 10 international members, i.e. three European natural history museums (Swedish Museum of Natural History [Stockholm, Sweden], Royal Museum for Central Africa [Tervuren, Belgium], and Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle [Paris, France]); four universities (Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel [Kiel, Germany], Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia [Vancouver, Canada], and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki [Thessaloniki, Greece], Universidade Federal de Sergipe [Sergipe, Brazil]; and three non-government organisations (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [Rome, Italy], WorldFish [Penang, Malaysia], and Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences [Beijing, China]) 
Attending this four-day event at IRRI, College, Los Baños, Laguna are invited speakers from local universities and research institutions, representatives of partner institutions, FishBase Consortium members themselves, and students from universities and secondary schools in the Philippines. 

Among the notable guests is Dr. Daniel Pauly, a world-renowned fisheries biologist. He is the co-proponent (alongside Dr. Rainer Froese) of FishBase, the highly successful database on all fishes of the world and the Principal Investigator of SeaLifeBase, a flourishing complementary database which documents all non-fish marine organisms. An outlier and a true hero in the fisheries sector, he has bravely filled the void in world’s fisheries. While most conform in regulatory agencies with skewed systems, he and his colleagues have looked at the larger picture, repeatedly being upfront on reporting that fish stocks are plummeting worldwide. He stressed that a considerable reduction in global fishing and a firm stand on “no take” zones are crucial for fisheries to thrive. His contributions to fisheries are insurmountable. He co-developed concepts, methods and software which are documented in over 500 scientific and general-interest publications and used by ocean experts throughout the world. With so much on his plate, he even teaches an array of courses at the Fisheries Centre and Zoology, University of British Columbia and handles graduate students in four languages on five continents. No wonder his career has been highly commended in various profiles like Nature and New York Times, to name a few. Recently he was invited in TedXSydney wherein he unfolded the obvious gap between the reported global catch and the much higher reconstructed global catch. Since 1999, he has served as the Principal Investigator of the Sea Around Us, working towards mitigating the impacts of fisheries on the world’s marine ecosystems.

The 13th Annual FishBase Symposium will be held on September 1, and will focus on paper presentations both international and local. Dr. Daniel Pauly will give the key note address with the theme “FishBase: an improbable success, and what it inspired.” Dr. Cornelia Nauen of Mundus Maris, Belgium will lead the inspirational talk. FishBase Consortium members who themselves are presentors will share their experiences and insights in using FishBase to supplement teaching and research activities. They are Dr. Rainer Froese, FishBase Consortium Coordinator, Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research, Germany; Dr. Nicolas Bailly, Helenic Centre for Marine Research, Greece; Dr. Jos Snoeks, Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Belgium; Dr. Kosta Stergiou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Dr. Kátia Freire, Universidade Federal de Sergipe, Brazil; Dr. Markus Skyttner, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Sweden; Dr. Fumito Muto, Tokai University, Japan; Dr. Mathieu Colleter, University of British Columbia, Canada; and Ms. Regina Bacalso, ECOFISH-USAID. 

Local presentors will come from five distinguished research institutions and two state universities. They will talk about their work and how FishBase and SeaLifeBase have contributed or can contribute to teaching and research. Speakers are Dr. Reiner Wassmann, International Rice Research Institute; Dr. Rex Montebon, Conservation International-Philippines; Dr. Adelaida Palma, NFRDI-BFAR; Mr. Christian Elloran, ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity; Mr. Patrick Co, World Wildlife Fund Philippines; Dr. Benjamin Vallejo, Jr., UP Diliman; and Dr. Asuncion de Guzman, Mindanao State University Naawan. Dr. Maria Lourdes Palomares, SeaLifeBase Project coordinator, will conclude the symposium. 

Other anniversary celebration activities from September 1 to 4 include a poster exhibit of FishBase and SeaLifebBase, a book-giving activity to local libraries, students’ hands-on orientation on FishBase and SeaLifeBase, and an art competition – poster-making and digital photo contests – expressing underwater relationships and connections. A workshop on “New Technology for small scale fisheries data collection” will be sponsored by Oceana on September 4 and will be led by Dr. Stephen Box of Smithsonian Institution, USA. 

This anniversary event is also a tribute to honor the donors, partners and collaborators who have extended their support through the years to provide, free of charge to the public, these comprehensive information systems with key data on all aquatic organisms of the world.