COELACANTH CONTROVERSIES

 
          The mingled destinies of coelacanths and men have not brought out the best in the latter. Ambition, jealousy, and opportunistic moralizing have plagued the coelacanth since its 1938 "discovery." First, there was an uneasy tension between JLB Smith and Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer who had spotted the fish on the trawler Nerine in December 1938, and sent Smith the sketch that led to its identification. Courtenay-Latimer had been unable to preserve the internal organs in the summer heat and without these Smith had been hard put to prove the fish's ancient identity to everyone's satisfaction. Smith and Courtenay-Latimer gave slightly different accounts of their first meeting on his arrival in East London to see the specimen, his implied that she was somewhat indifferent to the discovery.

             Following the find of the "second" coelacanth in the Comoros in 1952, relations between Eric Hunt and Smith deteriorated when jealous French officials, who felt the coelacanth had been stolen by Smith from beneath their noses, threatened to revoke Hunt's trading privileges. Then JLB Smith and the French scientists, who took over coelacanth research from him by fiat, went at each other in the late 50's. Smith believing, perhaps erroneously, that coelacanths were being intentionally caught for the scientists accused them of an unnecessary "slaughter" of coelacanths which he held were already endangered. The only justification for catching a coelacanth, Smith believed, was for exhibiting one in an aquarium. Articles on the controversy spilled out of scientific journals onto the pages of the international press.

             A new twist to the same issue erupted in the 1980's when the Explorers Club/ New York Aquarium expeditions visited the Comoros to capture a coelacanth for aquarium display/research. The Max-Planck submersible group arrived at the same time and took the further (than Smith) position that no coelacanth should be even captured for an aquarium as this would place undue pressure on the small, dwindling, population. The E.C./New York Aquarium held that learning techniques of captive husbandry were essential at this time precisely because of the dwindling population. This controversy also spilled into the press. New York Aquarium backed off the quest, but Toba Aquarium of Japan conducted an unsuccessful capture expedition in 1989 until its funding was cut off. Hans Fricke of the Max-Planck-Institute, diving with his submersible at the same time the Japanese were there, placed a sign in one of their traps saying "Coelacanths - Let them where they are!"

          Being "pro coelacanth" is a fairly obvious and easy position to take in an age of growing conservation awareness. But moralizing about the fish appears to have had strong opportunistic elements. Smith, having got what he wanted out of the fish, had no reason to support the work of the French scientists who were denying him access and thus accused them of "slaughtering" what were probably accidental catches. Even as the Max-Planck group criticized the New York Aquarium in 1988, unsubstantiated stories circulated that it too had originally planned to capture a coelacanth until funding for that part of the venture fell through. The Max-Planck group joined with a group from the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology (see "Expeditions") to form the Coelacanth Conservation Council or C.C.C. which opposed capture and helped scuttle the Toba and New York Aquarium projects. Then, reportedly, two of the C.C.C. directors, not from Max-Planck, hatched a coelacanth capture plan, later scuttled for the original reasons. And so it goes.

          If the past was any indication, the discovery of coelacanths in Indonesia was likely to fuel further controversies. And so it did: a group of different scientists "scooped" the discoverer, Mark Erdmann and his Indonesian associates in first publishing a paper naming the find as a new species - Latimeria menadoensis. Erdmann's group was blindsided. The same group of scientists, trying to justify their previous action, then submitted an article to Nature, claiming prior discovery of the Indonesian coelacanths. While there had been contemporaneous reports of the earlier find, the scientists included a photograph of "their" fish which was an obvious fake: a Photoshop makeover of Mark Erdman's own well known coelacanth picture! Shades of the famous Piltdown Man hoax. In fairness to the scientists, it was not clear which if any of them knew their picture was a fraud. None accepted responsibility.

          Then, the discovery of the "new" South African coelacanths shed fresh blood. First two different submersible missions vied for research "rights," with a submersible already visiting South Africa denied access in favor of the Max Planke Institute's "Jago's" planned visit in April, 2002. Next, when the South African "discovery team" returned for dives in May, 2001, South African Park and labor authorities interferred with the dives for several days by revoking permission based on contract technicalities. Rumors circulated that professional jealousies from abroad and within the JLB Smith Institute itself were behind the interference. But the fact that the discovery team (whose third dives were financed by UK CH4) and their associates were commercially exploiting the coelacanth with an internet pay per view scheme might not have helped. At a September, 2001, South African Coelacanth Conservation protocol meeting in Grahamstown, further efforts were made to exclude the discovery team from additional dives. With the renamed JLB Smith Inst (SAIAB) now operating the South African Coelacanth program in conjunction with the parks free diving to view coelacanths remains highly restricted even for the original discoverers. Nothing new in the world of our favorite fish...

 


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