A look at the Coelacanth

Although trolling for trophy striper might be a common favourite these days, every now and again another giant, rare and timeless oddity emerges from the cold dark Tanzanian waters off the East African coast of the Indian Ocean. Once news of the catch reached the shore, ichthyologists scurried to see the specimen.

Reeled in on July 16, weighing over 60 lbs and over 1.34 metres long, Tanzanian fishermen pulled a coelacanth’s on board. The fish’s dark and toothy appearance always draws attention, and the bragging rights of any mariner lucky enough to hook the ancient beast.

Often prefixed as “once thought to be extinct,” the fish was rediscovered’ 1938, taking the wind out of headline sails for over 70 years. Nonetheless the massive and eerie looking fish, with its ancient and nearly unchanged design, is a living fossil and a newsworthy catch. Because of their unusual rediscovered status, they are often considered a Lazarus species,’ and are on the endangered species list making it illegal to trap, hunt or trade the animal where the laws are in place.

Truly one of the oldest fish on the planet, the coelacanth first emerged in the fossil record 410 million years ago during the Devonian age but disappeared about 80 million years ago, in the middle Cretaceous, while dinosaurs were still haunting the earth. The first fish was caught in South Africa, yet none have been caught there since. Many have been caught over the last few years off the northern tip of Tanzania.

It is probable that more are being caught these days because fishermen are casting their nets into deeper waters to reach their quotas, where the coelacanths live. The current population is estimated around 500 fish.

While the trawlers might be endangering their habitat or population densities, without them the population off the Tanzanian coast would have remained unknown. “I suppose we should be grateful to these trawlers, because they have revealed this amazing and unique fish population,” said Solomon Makoloweka, a member of the Tanga Coastal Zone Conservation and Development Program.

Coelacanths have four major fins, the front two stroke from the side, while the rear two stabilize from underneath. It also has two dorsal fins as well as a broad and multi-finned tale. It also has a stabilizing fin on the tale behind its belly. Remarkably, the coelacanths are believed to live between 80 and 100 years, and have the ability to slow down their metabolism at any time in a type of hibernation, minimizing the amount energy they require.

The fish are known to eat cuttlefish, small sharks, squid and eels, and can swim backwards and upside down, if necessary, to find food. They grow to almost two meters in length and can weight upwards of 98 kg. The fish themselves are a dark blue colour, though they fade to a grey/brown after they die. The fish don’t survive long in captivity.