The discovery of three rare coelacanths in a South African marine protected area has led the national government to place emergency restrictions on access to the MPA. Officials are now examining how the fishes' presence could be harnessed to increase tourism and research in the area.
On 27 November, recreational scuba divers encountered and videotaped the coelacanths at a depth of 107 meters (351 feet) in the St. Lucia Marine Protected Area, off the east coast of South Africa. This is the shallowest site in the world at which these ancient fish have been found. South Africa is just the third country (after Comoros and Indonesia) in whose waters live coelacanths have been observed.
The species is estimated to be 360-million years old. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has classified the coelacanth as "vulnerable", meaning it faces a high risk of extinction in the near future. Prior to the discovery of coelacanths in the St. Lucia MPA, scientists believed that the species' preferred habitat was on reefs at depths of 200-600 meters.
Mohammed Valli Moosa, the South African minister of environmental affairs and tourism, said the discovery of the coelacanths presented "major opportunities for research and tourism." Moosa responded to the find by declaring an emergency measure to require special permission from his ministry to dive beyond the 60-meter isobath in the MPA, including with submersible craft. Coelacanths will also enjoy complete protection from fishing, disturbance, and commercial trade in South Africa, unless authorized by the minister.
Colin Attwood, principal oceanographer with Marine and Coastal Management (an agency within the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism) said the emergency measure would allow the thriving scuba diving industry near the MPA to continue in shallower waters. He called the new regulations "an attempt to protect the coelacanth, establish a proper system of awarding rights to dive charters and researchers, and ensure that the MPA derives benefit from activity related to the coelacanths."
Tourism important for poverty-stricken region
All coral reefs in South Africa are protected in two contiguous MPAs: the St. Lucia MPA and the Maputaland MPA. Established in 1979, the St. Lucia MPA is 73 km long (running north/south along the coast) and extends 3 nautical miles out to sea. The shelf drops off quickly and there are a few canyons, such as the one where the coelacanths were spotted. The MPA's reefs lie relatively deeply, and include an abundance of soft corals.
The objectives of the St. Lucia MPA include conservation, fisheries management, and tourism. No bottomfishing is allowed in the MPA, although pelagic fishing is allowed in certain zones. In general, only sportfishing -- mainly trolling -- is practiced.
"This is a poverty-stricken area, like much of east Africa," said Attwood. "The revenue derived from scuba, sportfishing, and other recreational activities is an important source of income to the local economy. We are hoping that the coelacanth will put the St. Lucia MPA on the map."
Attwood said he expects the MPA now to be in demand for divers, even though special training is necessary in order to descend to the coelacanths' depth. (The divers who observed the coelacanths were breathing TRIMIX, a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium.) "We do not know what, if any, tourist industry should be developed to take advantage of their presence," said Attwood. "We suspect that the fish, which may be residents, are sensitive to disturbance, and hence we shall proceed cautiously."
The discovery of coelacanths comes as the national government is encouraging tourism growth in the surrounding region. In a media statement, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism said the coelacanth discovery would "add another attraction" to the nearby Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, South Africa's first World Heritage Site (designated in 1999) and the largest wetland system in the southern hemisphere. The ministry has stated its intent to establish the wetland park as a major international tourism destination.
For more information:
Colin Attwood, Marine and Coastal Management, Private Bag x2, Roggebaai 8012, South Africa. Tel: +27 21 4023190; E-mail: cattwood [at] sfri.wcape.gov.za.