Rise in coelacanth catches worries experts

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A rise in the number of coelacanths caught off the African coast is worrying experts on the rare fossil fish.

The coelacanth, an ancient living fossil fish, was discovered off the Comoro Islands in South Africa in the 1930s and is closely related to types of fish that went extinct millions of years ago.

Until recently it's been only a rare find in the nets of commercial fishermen operating off the African coast, however, according to Dr Tony Ribbink of the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme, 29 coelacanths have been caught off the Tanzania coast in the past three years. The species had never been caught there until 2003.

Ribbink told the Independent Online: "Nowhere else at any time in the world has there been such a rapid and devastating capture of coelacanths. Nineteen were caught over a six-month period, including six in one night."

Coelacanths are a deep water fish and typically live around underwater caves in depths of 100m or more. Ribbink thinks that the rise in catches shows that African fishermen are changing their fishing strategies because inshore species are diminishing through years of overfishing.

The first coelacanth described, Latimeria chalumnae, was discovered in East London in South Africa by museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer - after whom the fish is named. A second specimen was caught in 1952 by a fisherman near the Comoro Islands.

In 1999 a second species was described as L. menadoensis from the Central Pacific. This Indonesian coelacanth is slightly smaller than L. chalumnae and has a more westerly distribution.

Both species are protected under International law under CITES.