The History of OBIS

Last updated on Wed, 2011-08-10 13:28. Originally submitted by julio on 2010-05-21 20:05.

The concept of OBIS was first developed at a conference sponsored by the Census of Marine Life (CoML) in 1997. At the time, a comprehensive system for the retrieval of ocean biological data did not exist. The databases that did exist to distribute ocean biological data failed to "usefully summarize known distributions and abundance of marine life nor are they organized to encouraged frequent use or intercomparison of datasets" (Grassle 2000). The problems generated by this disenfranchisement of marine data from the frequent user are very serious ones: if scientists cannot efficiently collect and effectively share data about the oceans with each other, how will anyone be able to generate new, comprehensive hypotheses about our oceans? If new findings about the oceans remain localized and hidden from the rest of the marine science community, then the data fails to have an impact on research in the marine science community at large.

Not long after the initial meeting, OBIS was established as a project of the Census of Marine Life to help facilitate global enfranchisement of data within the scientific community. The goal of OBIS was simple: to create "an online, user-friendly system for absorbing, integrating, and accessing data about life in the oceans" (Grassle 2000). The system would stimulate taxonomic and systematic research and generate new hypotheses concerning: - evolutionary processes - factors related to maintainance of species distributions - roles of marine organisms in marine ecosystem function (Grassle 2000).

For the last decade, the OBIS community has worked tirelessly to make sure that all data contributed to OBIS from hundreds of providers is available to the public through its search interface. In many ways, the OBIS database has become the database that the OBIS community envisioned at its creation.

But OBIS is still evolving: OBIS hopes to become even more user friendly, appealing to both the scientific community and the common internet user. The OBIS community promotes an open access policy and believes that data collected about the oceans should be easily accessible to a diverse set of users.


1997: Concept of OBIS developed at Sloan/CoML-sponsored Benthic Census Meeting organized by J.H. Ausubel and J.F. Grassle.

1998: Prototype of OBIS website developed by J.F. Grassle, K. Stocks, Y. Zhang at Rutgers University.

1999: First OBIS International Workshop in Washington, D.C.

2000: The National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP) funds eight OBIS projects through support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Office of Naval Research (ONR), and National Science Foundation (NSF).

2002: OBIS-SEAMAP added as OBIS project specializing in data about marine mammals, turtles, and birds. SeamountsOnline added as OBIS project: an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship to Karen Stocks at the San Diego Supercomputing Center.

2009: OBIS was adopted by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, as one of its activities under its International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE) programme. Since then, OBIS and IODE staff members have been working on making this integration a reality. 

Early Publications about OBIS: Oceanography Magazine, Volume 13, No. 3 Special Issue: Ocean Biogeographic Information System

OBIS is a project of:
IODE Sponsored by:
Martin International and Les Grands Explorateurs
With in-kind support from:
Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Duke University
Universidad Simón Bolívar Flanders Marine Institute

OBIS strives to document the ocean's diversity, distribution and abundance of life. Created by the Census of Marine Life, OBIS is now part of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, under its International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE) programme.