Fishing Lines: Precarious life of a living fossil

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The Independent Online
A FISH which should have died out 80 million years ago is now in danger of becoming extinct - and fishermen are to blame.

In 1938 Marjorie Courtenay- Latimer, a young South African naturalist, discovered an unknown fish with large blue scales in a South African trawler haul. The weird-looking five-foot creature, weighing 127lb, was a coelacanth, a member of a group that evolved in the Upper Devonian period 400 million years ago. Its capture was so significant that the species was named Latimeria after its discoverer. Its relatives would have been swimming around when dinosaurs tramped the earth.

Since that day in December 1938, more than 200 have been captured, nearly all on handlines. All but one have come from the Comoros, a group of islands between Madagascar and the east coast of Africa. It's not a terribly stable place: coups are a regular occurrence, the soil is poor and literacy is a mere 15 per cent.

The coelacanth's presence has had a huge impact on life on the four islands, whose only previous claims to fame were a takeover by French mercenaries in 1989 and an active volcano. The islanders, whose average annual salary is a mere dollars 450, suddenly found that a coelacanth could make them rich beyond their wildest dreams.

First it was the scientists who all wanted one to examine when Professor J L B Smith, of South Africa, discovered a second coelacanth in 1952. Smith had offered a 50,000 colonial francs reward (about pounds 100), but soon his bid was trumped many times over by museums desperate for a 'living fossil'.

To the Comoros fishermen even pounds 100 is a fortune. When museums, for whom dead fish in formalin are as sexy as a pin-up picture, offered more than the poor chaps could hope to earn in their lives they quite reasonably switched to fishing for coelacanth. Fresh fish, once the locals' staple diet, became rare - and has become rarer since the Chinese stepped in.

For some reason, the Chinese believe that eating a coelacanth will give them longevity. Quite why anyone would want to live for 80 million years, I have no idea, but they are willing to pay a fortune for the dubious privilege. And it's no good telling them that the fish are actually poisonous. They believe that fluid from the backbone, unique because it is not of bone but a hollow tube of cartilage, will set them up nicely for the 22nd century and beyond.

Attempts to protect the fish have been unsuccessful. Unscrupulous museums and nutty Chinese are easily side-stepping the primitive protection efforts. Smith set up an institute in South Africa to study this unique fish. The institute is seriously worried that continued plundering of the tiny coelacanth population will result in an 'extinct' fish actually becoming extinct.

Until recently it appeared that the world stock lived around the Comoros. However, the capture of one off Mozambique in 1991 showed that there could be other small populations and an article in this month's BBC Wildlife magazine reveals that there may be a totally undiscovered species of coelacanth.

The evidence, it has to be said, is speculative. For a start, J Richard Greenwell, secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology, has based his findings on a few scales (none of which he's actually seen) and the discovery of two four-inch antique silver fish. Greenwell says: 'The depiction is a little different from Latimeria, indicating a different species, but it is a coelacanth.' It is thought that the silver models originated in colonial Mexico.

The scales are more intriguing. A woman who ran an antique shop in Tampa, Florida, sent a strange fish scale to the US Fish and Wildlife Laboratory. She had bought a gallon can of the scales, each 11 2 in across. They were identified as coming from a coelacanth-like fish.

More recently, a naturalist on Florida's Gulf coast spotted an artist wearing a necklace of fish scales. The artist, who had been attracted by their glitter, had extracted them from a haul of fish, crabs and seaweed caught by a Gulf shrimp boat. The naturalist sketched the scales and said they 'looked very much like those of Latimeria'.

To some extent, it's in Greenwell's interest if a new species of coelacanth isn't discovered. His organisation is devoted to the study of unverified animals.