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‘Living Fossil’ Fish May|Get Listing Protection

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed that the Tanzanian population of the African coelacanth, an ancient fish species, be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The coelacanth is a living remnant of a species once thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago. Though known through the fossil record, living specimens were not discovered until 1938.

Tuesday's proposal to list the Tanzanian distinct population segment (DPS) of the African coelacanth as a threatened species was prompted by a 2013 petition from the WildEarth Guardians (WEG) to list 81 marine species under the ESA. The environmental group maintains that nearly half of all marine species may be at risk of extinction by 2100 due to threats to the oceans unless conservation efforts are put in place. "Despite this grave situation, the U.S. largely fails to protect marine species under the ESA. Of the 2,216 species protected under the Act, only 125 (about 5 percent) are marine species," the group said in their response to the listing proposal.

The NMFS found that only 27 of the 81 petitioned species may warrant ESA protection, and the agency is addressing those determinations individually.

The effort to make the determination for the coelacanth is hampered because these fish live in very deep waters and are usually studied with the aid of sophisticated technology such as remotely operated submersible vehicles.

The fish are long-lived, possibly up to 100 years, and reach sexual maturity between 16 and 19 years. Their three year gestation period is one of the longest of any vertebrate. They have a very low metabolic rate and a small gill size, factors that are believed to contribute to both their slow maturation and their cold deep water habitat requirements. Due to slow reproductive rates, the "small and isolated" Tanzanian population is vulnerable to threats that could decimate the population to such a level that recovery would be difficult, the NMFS said in the action.

One such threat is a proposed deep-sea port planned to be built in the middle of the Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park in Tanzania. The fish would be subject to underwater blasting, channel dredging and destruction of known coelacanth habitat. Siltation in the underwater caves used by the fish for protection would also threaten the population.

Though the coelacanth is not considered edible, it is currently threatened as by-catch in deep-set shark gillnets. Due to the demand for shark fins, the shark trade is expected to increase in the region, the agency said.

It is expected that the human population in Africa will double to 2.1 billion by 2050 resulting in increased coastal pollution, sedimentation and siltation, which could negatively impact the coelacanth population, according to the action.

Though their deep water habitat currently shields the fish from the effects of global warming, deep water warming has increased over the past decade and could be another threat to the survival of the Tanzanian DPS.

"The coelacanth is a relic of prehistory and deserves the best possible protections," Taylor Jones, WEG's endangered species advocate, was quoted as saying in the group's response. "The Fisheries Service should promptly finalize this listing and fully protect this rare and special species."

Critical habitat was not proposed because the population's range is entirely outside U.S. jurisdiction, and the agency has not identified any unoccupied areas essential to the conservation of the Tanzanian DPS.

Besides protective regulations and recovery plans, the listing of the population provides recognition of the species' plight, promoting conservation actions by federal and state agencies, foreign entities, private groups, and individuals.

Comments on the proposed listing are due May 4, and public hearing requests must be made by April 17.

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