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.

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