Living Fossil Could Soon Be Dead

It was big zoological news when a lobe-finned fish long thought to be extinct was captured in 1938 off South Africa's coast. It should be bigger news if it faces true extinction.

The Coelacanth is unusual for a fish, having limbs but no backbone — just a "notochord" full of oil. The Coelacanth, in one species or another, dates to 400 million years ago. It was once thought to have gone extinct some 65 million years ago, but that turned out not to be the case.

Some fourteen years after the first, a second specimen was found in the Comoros. A few more were soon discovered, and the fish was properly filmed in one of its natural settings. A Coelacanth of a different species but the same genus (Latimeria) was eventually found in Indonesia.

Modern fishing practices may contribute to its present endangerment around South Africa. Japanese trawling vessels were working near the Coelacanth's habitat when the fish showed up in profusion off Tanzania. The District Fisheries authority for Kigombe phoned the Tanga Coastal Zone Conservation and Development Programme (TCZCDP) on August 23, 2004, regarding an unusual catch of which they had been informed. Investigating authorities were startled to see two dead Coelacanths. Over twenty more were caught later.

Since the catches were of what may be a rare fish, this is a matter for concern for many. The TCZCDP, with the help of Ireland Aid, has a plan for the species' protection.

Since Coelacanths show up in shallow-water bottom nets inshore when Japanese trawlers are in evidence, this tentative connection shows where large populations of the fish exist, and also indicates danger. So the TCZCDP urges the Tanzanian government to limit fishing and fund research so that the Coelacanths can be protected. Solomon Makoloweka is among those in the Programme, which has been in operation since 1994, pressuring for regulation of the trawlers.

Local fishing communities do not share these concerns, since the mucus-exuding and oily fish is inedible.

— Douglas Chapman

Sources:

The Observer (Guardian Unlimited), http://observer.guardian.co.uk, 1/8/06

Jocara, http://www.jocara.net/Research/Coelacanth/coelacanth.html

Tanga Coastal Zone Conservation and Development Programme, http://www.iucn.org/places/earo/

Coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae @ MarineBio.org

Coelacanth — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coelacanth


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