Coelacanth, a ‘rare marine fish’ species dubbed as the “Living Fossil” thought to be extinct have now started to show up more and more in gillnets set by fishers in Southwestern Madagascar as they move to deeper waters to meet the increasing demand for Shark fins and oil. The fish predates dinosaurs.
The Coelacanths are fish with lobefins looking much like paired fins and highly modified lungs/swim bladder. Until a first living specimen was discovered fortuitously in South Africa in 1938 by a South African museum curator on a local fishing trawler, they were Thought to be extinct for 65 million years. The Western Indian Ocean species, Latimeria chalumnae, is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, while a similar species found in the seas around Indonesia (L. menadoensis) is classified as Vulnerable.
While sharks have been targeted in the Indian Ocean for more than a century, the rapid growth of the Chinese economy during the 1980s had led to an “explosion” of incidental coelacanth captures in Madagascar and other countries in the western part of the Indian Ocean. More and More fishermen with the relatively new and more deadly jarifa gillnets are going deeper and deeper in the oceans to catch more sharks resulting in them finding and possibly harming previously unknown populations of these West Indian Ocean coelacanths.
A few dozen captures may not immediately seem significant, but the Western Indian Ocean coelacanth’s is listed as critically endangered. Its population size is still unknown, and the increasing frequency of catches is alarming especially as the true catch rate by jarifa nets could be higher than current official records. Marine scientists are calling for reinforcement of conservation measures to protect this population from the pressure of unintentional captures in Undersea canyons off Madagascar, by gillnets, driven by the shark fin trade.
These Fish have eight fins, large eyes and a small mouth, and a unique pattern of white spots allowing each fish to be individually identified. They weigh up to 90 kilogrammes and give birth to live young after a gestation period of 36 months. And as these vulnerable species are rare, large in size, at a high trophic level in the food pyramid, have low dispersal rates and produce few offspring and high longevity, they’re unlikely to survive high exploitation.
Paubert Tsimanaoraty Mahatante, a marine researcher with the Madagascan government’s Institute of Fisheries and Marine Science (IHSM) said he does not believe that fishermen are deliberately targeting coelacanths for sale.Though he expressed concern that some hotels in southern Madagascar were buying and displaying preserved coelacanth specimens to attract tourists. Mahatante said he doubted that the gill nets deployed in southern Madagascar go beyond 100m in depth, but if they were deployed deeper than this “it could be a big problem”.
(Image: Original National Museum of Natural History exhibit of a coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae (Smithsonian Institution Archives))