Ecotourism Hopes Build as Africans Seek Ancient Fish

By Muhingo Rweyemamu

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, July 28, 2003 (ENS) - Tanzanian scientists have joined other scientists from southern African countries to undertake a joint research project on an ancient fish, the coelacanth, which was thought to have gone extinct some 65 million years ago. Its rediscovery has sparked scientific interest that the African countries hope will translate into visitors interested in learning more about the prehistoric coelacanth.

This fish was rediscovered off the mouth of Chumna River at East London, South Africa in December 1938. Since then, more than 180 coelacanths have been found in five different countries. The most recent discovery was in Malindi, Kenya in 2001.

Six scientists from South Africa, two from Mozambique, one from Comoros, and three from Tanzania are taking part in a five year project to discover the habitats of the coelacanth in the southern and eastern African waters of the Indian Ocean. Although Madagascar is a partner country, it has no scientists on board, at least for the time being.

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Coelacanth discovered at East London, South Africa (Photo courtesy Tanzania Marine Park Authority)
The exploration team aboard the South African research vessel "Algoa" arrived at the port of Dar es Salaam from South Africa on Sunday. The research mission, known as the Joint Coelacanth Research and Marine Conservation Program, is financed by the partner countries. South Africa is funding the majority of the activities including the provision of the vessel and senior scientists.

Program director Dr. A.J. Ribbink of South Africa said in Dar es Salaam that rediscovery of the coelacanth completely changed scientists' beliefs about the ancient fish, and opened up the mystery of how this fish survived while many other ancient vertebrates, such as dinosaurs failed.

“This is not a study of silly old fossil fish, but promoting the coelacanth as an icon for conservation of marine resources - an aquatic panda,” says Dr. Ribbink, who also works with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity.

Dr. Ribbink says program aims to conserve the coelacanth by using its high profile as an icon around which to bring the expertise of the region together. Scientists will work on those issues of importance, and by sharing expertise they intend to develop a regional capacity.

He believes the program will enable partner states to share data and information on the coelacanth and other fish populations, opportunities and facilities. “It will enable us to build capacity and sustainability.”

Speaking at the reception of the scientific team, Director of Tanzania Fisheries Institute Professor Phillip Bwathondi said the discovery of this living coelacanth is of great scientific interest because structures that were difficult to interpret or understand in the fossil can now be investigated.

“This can also help to test various hypotheses about the relationship of the coelacanth and other fishes and thus provide us with opportunity to study the origin and evolution of land living vertebrates," he said.

"The discovery may also add up to the tourist attraction that can be used for economical development of the particular nation,” said Professor Bwathondi.

The Tanzanian Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Zakia Meghji visted the "Algoa" at Dar es Salaam port. She expressed optimism that because the coelacanth was found in neighboring Kenya, chances are that it might also occur in Tanzanian waters.

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Tanzanian Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Zakia Meghji (Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy in Tanzania)
“It is quite possible that our fishermen might have fished it. But because of poor communication, this information might have skipped the attention of our scientists,” said Meghji.

The minister also said that Tanzania has a lot to gain in such a regional research program. “This program is the brainchild of our scientists from South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Comoro and Madagascar. The initiatives are consistent with our policy on regional collaboration. We insist on forging partnerships in matters of scientific research and things of that nature,” Meghi said.

The South African High Commissioner to Tanzania Theresa Solomon said she believes the western Indian Ocean and coastal east Africa have a rich natural heritage that is uniquely "ours."

“Biologically, she said, "this is symbolized by the coelacanth, but we also have outstanding oceanographic features, remarkable underwater canyons, ecotourism potential and a food basket for millions,” said the high commissioner.

Mike Roberts, a chief scientist of the team who also works with the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Program in South Africa, said that in addition to the 1938rediscovery at East London, South Africa, more than 180 coelacanth fishes have been found - in Comoro in 1952, Mozambique in 1991, Toliara in Madagascar in 1994, Sodwana in South ,Africa in 2000 and Malindi in Kenya in 2001.

Roberts says that for 400 million years, the coelacanth has never changed its shape. “This is why we are more interested. The physical features of human beings from the first emergence of homosapiens have changed dramatically, but this has never happened to coelacanth."

One of the 12 scientists aboard "Algoa" is a Tanzanian, Dr. N. Nyandwi from the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Dar es Salaam, says the aim of the mission is to investigate the environment of the ocean - its biodiversity, water chemistry and the quality of the water.

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Coelancanths emerge from caves in the Comoros. (Photo courtesy Tanzania Marine Park Authority)
On the search for the coelacanth in Tanzania, he says the focus will be on the region from Latham Island to Mtwara and from Zanzibar to Pemba.

“This is because these two regions have similar topography to the areas that are known to harbor these fossil fishes. Latham Islam was of great interest due to its fishing and avian potential and significance," said Dr. Nyandwi.

"The Lindi and Mtwara Region could also harbor the fossil fish, since the Comoros, the islands assumed to be their breeding ground, are not far from this region,” he says. Lindi and Mtwara are southern regions of Tanzania about 700 kilometers (435 miles) from Dar es Salaam.

Currently, the program is funded by the South African government together with German technical cooperation and support and by contributions from different local and international companies in South Africa. So far the South African government has invested about US$900,000 in the project.

Tanzania Natural Resources Minister Meghj said each participating country is required to finance its own national activities. Tanzania has financed the initial launch of the country’s program.

What is known about coelacanths to date shows that they can live for about 80 years. Normally females are larger than males and bear live young, as many as 26 juveniles at a time. They are capable of short bursts of speed, but are typically quite slow.

Coelacanths normally feed on other fishes and squids, and their only predators are human and large sharks. They live in caves during the day and hunt at night. Their blue bodies with white speckles provide excellent camouflage against the cave surfaces covered with white sponges and oyster shells.