The famous “living fossil” known as the West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) may not swim in American waters, but it just got important new protections courtesy of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
After just about a year of deliberation, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced this week that it would specifically protect the Tanzanian population of coelacanths as a “threatened” species under the ESA. As I wrote last March, population estimates for this distinct population are quite small—between 230 and 650 fish. They also don’t have much natural protection, unlike the coelacanths that swim around the Comoro Islands and South Africa, which can hide from fishermen and other threats in deepwater caves. The Tanzanian population has no such safe haven and fishing nets all-too-frequently scoop up and kill the rare fish. The coelacanths could be put further at risk by construction of ports planned for the Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park, an area named after the very species it now threatens.
NMFS listed the coelacanth in response to a 2013 petition from WildEarth Guardians. The process took three years, but that’s actually kind of speedy to some other petitioned species which have waited years for action. “I think this one moved through so quickly because it is entirely outside of the U.S. and is only slightly impacted, if at all, by trade, which makes it non-controversial,” says Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth. “Still, it’s great that it moved through the process in a timely fashion.”
ESA protection doesn’t actually do much to immediately protect coelacanths, but Taylor notes that the action helps to raise awareness about this mysterious species. It also, she said, “authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to aid local conservation efforts via money or personnel.” There’s no word yet on how or if that will happen, but similar efforts have benefitted a wide range of species from gorillas to rhinos to tigers.
WildEarth’s original petition noted that coelacanths need protection in order to recover because they require so much time to grow their populations. Coelacanths have one of the longest gestation periods on record for vertebrates, with young gestating for nearly three years before birth. In other words, don’t expect a baby boom any time soon, but still hope that this action provides an edge to help this rare, 400-million-year-old species survive another few million years.