The biological diversity of the world ocean is subject to unprecedented alterations that are largely due to potentially irreversible effects of human activities. What do we know about the pattern and scale of these changes, and how are they altering the structure and organization of marine communities? How can we improve our ability to predict the effects of a growing human population on the diversity of life in the sea? Answering these questions requires a substantially improved understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that create, maintain, and regulate diversity in the sea.
In 1993 the National Research Council's Ocean Studies Board and Board on Biology established the Committee on Biological Diversity in Marine Systems(*) to tackle the daunting task of laying the foundation for a national research agenda on marine biodiversity. The committee's principal tool was a 1994 biodiversity workshop (see "The Workshop Experience" on page 6). The workshop provided a vehicle for building consensus and gathering information, while for six months both before and after the workshop the committee assembled further important materials. The result is a book, Understanding Marine Biodiversity (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1995, 114 pages), that identifies the urgent need for a national research program and outlines a research agenda.
The work of the committee and the workshop identified five major critical environmental issues that affect or could potentially affect marine biodiversity. All are directly or indirectly linked to human activities, and have affected and may yet affect life from the tidal zone to the deep sea. The issues are:
* Fisheries operations, ubiquitous across marine habitats, include overexploitation to the extent that some of the world's greatest …