MANADO, Indonesia: A surprised fisherman has caught only the second coelacanth known from Asia since it was first discovered here in 1998.
That fisherman, Justinus Lahama, found he had caught a fish so exceptional that an international team of scientists came to investigate.
French experts equipped with sonar and GPS this week asked Lahama to reconstruct, in his dugout canoe, exactly what it was he did that enabled him to catch the coelacanth fish, an awkward-swimming species that is among the world’s oldest.
Coelacanths (Latimeria menadoensis) closely related to lungfish, usually live at depths of 200 to 1,000 metres. They can grow up to two metres in length and weigh as much as 91 kg.
Lahama, 48, has fished since he was 10 years old, like his father before him. But he was unlikely to have ever run into this “living fossil” species, as the enigmatic fish has been dubbed. Lahama’s catch, 1.3 metres long and weighing 50 kilograms was only the second ever captured alive in Asia.
The first was caught in 1998, also off Manado. That catch astonished icthyologists, who until then had been convinced that the last coelacanths were found only off eastern Africa, mainly in the Commoros archipelago.
The species had been thought to have died out around the time dinosaurs became extinct, until one was found there in 1938. Fossil records for the fish date back more than 360 million years and suggest that it has changed little over that period.
Last May, Lahama and his son Delvy manoeuvred their frail canoe into the Malalayang River, on the outskirts of Manado, on northern Sulawesi island. Like any other morning, they rowed out to sea and fished within 200 metres of the beach.
“I very quickly unrolled the usual trawl line with three hooks, about 110 metres (yards) long, and at the end of three minutes, I felt a large catch,” Lahama recounts.
He thought he was dreaming, he said, when he saw the creature at the end of his line: “It was an enormous fish. It had phosphorescent green eyes and legs. If I had pulled it up during the night, I would have been afraid and I would have thrown it back in,” he exclaims.
After spending 30 minutes out of water, the fish, still alive, was placed in a netted pool in front of a restaurant at the edge of the sea. It survived for 17 hours.
The local fisheries authorities filmed the coelacanth swimming in the metre-deep pool, capturing invaluable images as the species had only previously been recorded in caves at great depths. Once dead, the fish was frozen.
After the fisherman was interviewed, French, Japanese and Indonesian scientists working with the French Institute for Development and Research carried out an autopsy on the coelacanth. Genetic analysis is to follow.
The site of capture, so close to the beach and from a depth of 105 metres, had intrigued the experts. Does the Indonesian coelacanth live in shallower waters than its cousin in the Commoros?
Lahama’s fish is to be preserved and will be displayed in a museum in Manado.
Coelacanth – Wikipedia