South Africa announces plans for Coelacanth Programme

The South African Government is to commit R10 million to an ambitious,
multi-faceted conservation and research programme that involves scientist,
submersibles, ships, helicopters and - fish. Coelacanths, the mysterious 'fossil
fish' which was first discovered in its living form off the coast of South
Africa in 1938, will be at the center of the study.

Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, Dr Ben Ngubane announced
at Parliament late last week that his department has set aside the money to
start a conservation and research programme which will probe coelacanth
mysteries.

The Coelacanth Conservation and Genome Resource Programme is designed to
answer questions on biodiversity and marine science through study of a rare and
endangered population of coelacanths, living in fairly shallow water near
Sodwana Bay.

The coelacanth programme, involving 'high powered' research and development,
would attract local and international support. 'By fostering good innovative
research, we are investing in the future and probing the unknown,' Minister
Ngubane said.

The South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (formerly the JLB Smith
Institute) is to take a key role in implementation of the Coelacanth
Conservation and Genome Resource Programme. Through the National Research
Foundation (NRF) the Institute has been tasked by the Department of Arts,
Culture, Science and Technology (DACST) to implement the programme unveiled by
Minister Ngubane. SAIAB is a national facility of the NRF.

'We welcome Minister Ngubane's announcement' said Deputy Director of SAIAB,
Dr Alan Whitfield. 'This study involves more than just a fish and is set to
become a flagship programme for marine biodiversity in South Africa. We are
certain that this multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional initiative will
capture the imagination of scientists and public alike', he said.

In his statement, Minister Ngubane drew attention to the mysteries which
scientific research could unlock. 'We do not know what this project will
discover, whether it will answer the riddles the scientists are probing, or
whether by chance we may find on the ocean bottom organisms with the
pharmaceutical properties that might give us cures for cancer, or AIDS, or the
common cold', Minister Ngubane said.

In outlining the coelacanth programme, the Minister pointed to a strong
connection between investment in research and development and lowered poverty
rates. 'Real advances arise from exploratory research', he said.

The coelacanths were discovered in November 2000 off Sodwana Bay by a group
of divers in water about 100m deep.

Coelacanth specialist and Senior Ichthyologist at the South African Institute
for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB - formerly the JLB Smith Institute of
Ichthyology) Dr Phil Heemstra confirmed their identity.

Coelacanths have captivated the public imagination and international
attention since the first living coelacanth was found off the coast of East
London in 1938. Before this discovery, considered the 'zoological find of the
twentieth century', coelacanths were known only from fossil records.

Since 1938, probably as many questions as answers have emerged regarding the
coelacanth. How it has survived as a virtually unchanged species for 70 million
years is a question that intrigues scientists around the world. Juveniles have
not been seen and little is known about coelacanth reproduction.

The South African coelacanth population is located within a marine reserve
forming part of the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park, a World Heritage Site. In
response to the discovery, emergency regulations were put into place to ban
hunting and other activities that might disturb and endanger them. At the same
time it was recognised that the find presented an ideal opportunity for research
and tourism, if managed properly.

SAIAB became involved in this latest discovery when lead diver on the Sodwana
Bay expedition, Mr Pieter Venter, contacted the Institute to assist in
identification of the fish.

In response to the Minister's announcement, Dr Heemstra said: "We're
eager to get the ball rolling. As soon as we get the diving underway we can make
use of the opportunity provided by the availability of the German submersible,
the Jago, to learn more about this wonderful fish."

In September last year SAIAB hosted a conference at which plans for the
coelacanth initiative were developed. Delegates representing a wide range of
scientific disciplines and organisations attended.

Programmes Manager at SAIAB, Dr Tony Ribbink says that the programme
announced by the Minister is 'more than just a study of curious fish'. The
coelacanth, he says, stands as an 'icon for biodiversity'. The programme
therefore encompasses geo-science, oceanography, marine ecology, coelacanth
biology, zoogeography, population genetics, and genome resource studies.

Scientists will be investigating a range of questions to do with the
coelacanth and the environment it inhabits. In the process they will contribute
to DACST's goals for development, utilising science and technology. The
coelacanth initiative will promote public understanding of science as well as
environmental education. It aims to develop capacity in education, conservation
and research. The programme aims at building regional and international
cooperation to ensure conservation of shared marine resources.

Through the multi-disciplinary programme, information will be made available
for improving the management plans put in place by Marine and Coastal Management
and KwaZulu Natal Wildlife for the protection and utilization of the Sodwana
coelacanths as a valuable resource.

Research is about to start with acoustic mapping of the ocean floor. This
will provide information needed to locate coelacanths. The German submersible,
the Jago, capable of diving to a depth of 400 metres, will follow these maps to
find canyons and caves where coelacanths might be located. Coelacanths are
nocturnal fish, so research will include night-dives.

The Jago is participating in the programme on behalf of the Max Planck
Institute in Germany and will be manned by a technical team headed by Professor
Hans Fricke. Professor Fricke was first to study coelacanths in their natural
environment, filming them from a submersible at depths of over 100 metres off
the Comores in 1987.

The official launch of the programme will be held at Sodwana Bay on April 12.

Mr Pieter Venter, the Trimix diver who found the Sodwana coelacanths in
November 2000, will be in Grahamstown to participate in the SASOL SciFest 2002.
His talk is titled: "Coelacanths and the science and technology of extreme
deep diving".

Minister Ngubane's announcement at Parliament was made against a backdrop
provided by a coelacanth exhibition, including a life-size model, provided by
SAIAB. This exhibition, augmented by contributions from the East London Museum
and others, will be on display at the Institute during SASOL SciFest 2002.

SASOL SciFest 2002 runs in Grahamstown from March 13 to 19.