By John R. Platt
It may have hidden in the ocean for millions of years, but life today poses numerous challenges for the West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), the “living fossil” fish that was famously rediscovered off the coast of South Africa in 1938. The few areas in which the fish still swim face destruction from new port construction while the coelacanths themselves risk being caught up in fishing nets intended for sharks. Even climate change poses a new risk for the species.
The coelacanth already has a few protections in place—trade is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, for example—but now one more safeguard may soon be available. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed this week that coelacanths be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The proposal wouldn’t cover all coelacanths. Instead it would only add protection for the fish that live off the coast of Tanzania, where a genetically distinct population faces the greatest threats. The populations that live near the Comoro Islands and South Africa would not gain additional protection, nor would the separate coelacanth species that lives in Indonesian waters.
No one knows exactly how many coelacanths still live in the Indian Ocean but a 1994 survey estimated the population at between 230 and 650 fish.
According to data collected by the NMFS, the coelacanths living in the waters around the Comoro Islands and South Africa have an abundance of deepwater caves that help to keep them safe. Tanzania is a different story. The water there lacks caves; instead it has rocky terraces in somewhat shallower locations than in the other two sites. According to information presented in the Federal Register this week, this leaves the Tanzanian coelacanths less protected. At least 19 of the two-meter-long fish have been accidentally caught in fishermen’s nets around Tanzania’s coral reefs in the past decade.
Ironically enough, the planned new ports in Tanzania would be built in the newly established Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park. Construction would require submarine blasting and dredging and certainly destroy known coelacanth habitat. The NMFS estimated that the port “would likely disrupt coelacanth habitat by direct elimination of deepwater shelters or by a large influx of siltation that would likely result in coelacanth displacement.”
ESA protection wouldn’t have legal power to stop or modify any of this construction because it would be outside of the U.S. but it would help to raise awareness of the species’s plight, says Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, which petitioned to have the species protected under the ESA back in 2013. Such a listing would also authorize the U.S. to fund and assist in any conservation programs, although the NMFS proposal makes no specific plans for such.
Government action being what it is, the coelacanth still has a long wait before any potential ESA protection could kick in. Right now the public has a 60-day window to comment on the proposal (using the Federal Register link above). After that a years-long process to assess the proposal can begin. Of course the coelacanth has stuck it out for about a hundred million years, so what’s a little government bureaucracy in the meantime?