A FISH FOR OUR TIME

Our Top 10 for 2013. No. 2: when it turned up unexpectedly, 75 years ago, the coelacanth was the biological find of the century. And now it is showing why. Samantha Weinberg, its biographer, tells the best fish story in 380m years

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2013

AS THE SUN was setting on August 18th 2003, the night fishermen of Hahaya village eased their wooden pirogues off the jagged lava rocks and slid into the water. The ocean off the western coast of Grande Comore was calm and as the half-moon rose, they could see the volcano of Karthala silhouetted against the darkening sky. A few hundred metres offshore, one of the fisherman, a veteran of decades of nights on the dark water, laid his paddles across the boat and prepared a line. He tied two flat black stones above a baited hook, then let the fine filament slip through his fingers until it touched the seabed, deep below.

He was waiting for the nibble and tug of a fisha snapper or a grouper, perhaps, or if he was lucky, a marlin, which he would take the next morning to sell at the market in Moroni. But this time the tug was unfamiliar, and the old fisherman fought with the line before he managed to pull the fish to the surface.

Deep water at night is ink-black and the first thing he saw was a pair of eyes, glowing pink in the pale moonlight. As they surfaced, he could make out a large fish. He recognised it instantly as a gombessa, or coelacanth (pronounced see-la-kanth). Although rarely caught, it was known to all in the Comoros as their most precious asset, a fish that some said was the ancestor of man.

Only six coelacanths had been caught in the waters off Hahaya since 1966, and none in the previous five years, but the old fisherman knew what to do. He tethered it to the back of the boat and paddled back to the village. He knew there was little time to lose as gombessa live in the ocean depths and had never survived for more than a few hours at the surface. Determined to try, he made a safe water pool, and waited for the sun to rise.

The next morning, his nephew took the first bus into Moroni and went straight to the Centre National de Documentation et de Recherche Scientifique (CNDRS)a handsome white building off the central roundabout in Moroni, which houses the national museum and archives. He told them about the catch. It was what they had been waiting for since the previous year, when Professor Rosemary Dorrington of Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape had visited the island to talk about a new projectthe African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP)that had been set up in South Africa. She had left behind some equipment and instructions on what to do if a coelacanth was caught. Her point man in Moroni was Said Ahamada, a young environmentalist.

Ahamada was at home when the phone rang. He rushed to the CNDRS, grabbed the collecting kit and then caught a bush taxi to Hahaya. “It was very emotional,” he remembers. “I was very impatient to see the fish. And when I got there it was still moving a little. It was a very big female, close to two metres, and had already turned brown. But its eyes were still shining; it was amazing to see lights coming from its eyes.”

The coelacanth was hauled out of the water and laid on white plastic sacking, where, almost immediately, it died. Following Dorrington’s instructions, Ahamada took blood samples. He paid the fisherman, then heaved the coelacanth, still wrapped in its sacking, into the boot of a red hire car and, clutching the vial of blood, careered back to Moroni.

The fish was laid out on a table at CNDRS. Ahamada cut carefully into its side and extracted samples from all the major organsliver, heart, blood and gills. He carefully put each of them through a small manual meat-grinder, specially adapted for the task in case a lack of electricity made it impossible to use a blender, to homogenise the tissue. The samples were stored in the CNDRS freezer.

"I was excited that this fish from the Comoros was going to be used for science," Ahamada says. "But at that time I had no idea how important it would be." It wasn’t for another decadeuntil April this yearthat he would find out exactly how important.

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