“It was an enormous fish. It had phosphorescent green eyes and legs. If I had pulled it up during the night, I would have been afraid and I would have thrown it back in,” he exclaims.
Coelacanths, closely related to lungfish, usually live at depths of 200-1,000 metres (656-3,200 feet). They can grow up to two metres (6.5 feet) in length and weigh as much as 91 kilogrammes (200 pounds).
Lahama, 48, has fished since he was 10 years old, like his father and his grandfather before him. But he was unlikely to have ever run into this “living fossil” species, as scientists have dubbed the enigmatic fish.
Lahama’s catch, 1.3 metres long and weighing 50 kilograms (110 pounds) was only the second ever captured alive in Asia. The first was caught in 1998, also off Manado.
That catch astonished ichtyologists, who until then had been convinced that the last coelacanths were found only off eastern Africa, mainly in the Commoros archipelago. They had been thought to have died out around the time dinosaurs became extinct, until one was found there in 1938.
Their fossil records date back more than 360 million years and suggest that the fish has changed little over that period.
Lahama, who had never even heard of the fish, initially thought of selling his white-spotted catch.
“Considering his weight, I said to myself, this will fetch a good price.”
Returning to port, he showed it off to the most senior fisherman, who became alarmed.
“It is a fish which has legs — it should be given back to the water. It will bring us misfortune,” he told him. But the unsuperstitious Lahama decided to keep it.
After spending 30 minutes out of water, the fish, still alive, was placed in a netted pool in front of a restaurant at the edge of the sea. It survived for 17 hours.
The local fisheries authorities filmed the fish swimming in the metre-deep pool, capturing invaluable images as the species had only previously been recorded in caves at great depths.
Once dead, the fish was frozen.
After the fisherman was interviewed, French, Japanese and Indonesian scientists working with the French Institute for Development and Research carried out an autopsy on the coelacanth. Genetic analysis is to follow.
The site of capture, so close to the beach and from a depth of 105 metres, had intrigued the scientists. Does the Indonesian coelacanth live in shallower waters than its cousin in the Commoros?
Lahama’s fish is to be preserved and will be displayed in a museum in Manado.