Know any good recipes for endangered prehistoric fish? Plus: Do caribou like the Alaska oil pipeline?

December 30, 2011

Dear Cecil:

I've been reading about the coelacanth, the fish thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago that turned up in an Indonesian fish market. Do you know any good coelacanth recipes? Seems like this would be a nice change from a Filet-o-Fish.

Cecil replies:

I hear you. Every so often you think: right now a tasty morsel of endangered species would really hit the spot. However, one does have to consider the diarrhea.

Though occasionally sold to chumps in Asian markets, the coelacanth (SEE-luh-kanth) for the most part is shunned by fishermen. Paleontologist Peter Forey, an expert on coelacanths, advises us that in the Comoros Islands, where several hundred of the rare fish live, the local name for them is gombessa, meaning “taboo.” That’s not for religious reasons but for practical ones. Eating the critters will make you sick. The flesh of the coelacanth is high in oil, urea, wax esters, and other compounds, adding up to an indigestible mix. Field reports on the consequences of eating coelacanth speak vaguely of “a kind of diarrhea,” but we get a clearer picture from medical accounts of culinary encounters with fish that are similarly constituted. “It was difficult,” we’re told, “to contain the oil that was pooling in substantial quantities in the lower rectum.” I say we stop right there.

Hideous as all this sounds, one wonders whether it at least partly accounts for the coelacanth’s longevity as a species. The earliest recognizable coelacanth fossil is something like 360 million years old, while more recent ones date back 65 million years, around the time the dinosaurs disappeared. It was initially thought coelacanths had followed the big lizards into oblivion, but then fishermen landed one off the coast of southern Africa in 1938. In addition to the population living near the Comoros Islands, between Mozambique and Madagascar, a couple more have been found in Indonesia.

The question is why the coelacanth, sometimes referred to as a living fossil, has evolved so little in that vast span of time. You’ll forgive me for thinking it may have stumbled upon the perfect defense mechanism. We toothsome mammals were obliged to adapt quickly lest we wind up as lunchmeat. But potential coelacanth predators were more likely to conclude: no way am I eating that.

Dear Cecil:

Do Alaska caribou really like the oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay, which was predicted to be such an environmental disaster? Right-wing pundits claim the herd has thrived because the caribou like the warmth, but we’re suspicious.

Cecil replies:

And well you might be. The happy-caribou story was circulated in 2008 by, among others, Michelle Bachmann, famous for her rigorous command of the facts. Rush Limbaugh and columnist Jonah Goldberg also chimed in. These people have their axes to grind, and the idea that the pipeline has been a boon to the caribou goes beyond what I’ve seen in the professional literature. But the important point is this: while one may argue whether the Prudhoe Bay pipeline helped the caribou, it sure didn’t hurt.

The caribou population living in the region through which the pipeline passes, known as the Central Arctic Herd, has thrived since the oil began flowing in the late 1970s. In 1975 the herd numbered just 5,000; as of 2008 it had reached 67,000. Meanwhile some caribou populations more distant from the pipeline, such as the Porcupine Herd in the northeast corner of the state, have declined. That may superficially suggest that living near the pipeline is a plus, but charts of fluctuating caribou numbers don’t track in an obvious way with the pipeline’s presence. For example, the size of the Central Arctic Herd, which had increased at a moderate rate until the early 2000s, doubled between 2002 and 2008. Why, nobody knows.

Wildlife biologists report some behavioral differences in caribou possibly linked to the pipeline, but the overall impression is it didn’t make much difference — an interesting commentary in itself, given the predictions of disaster when the pipeline was being planned. One much-touted fear was that an earthquake might rupture the pipe, but a 2002 quake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale caused only minor damage and no spill. The biggest fiasco connected with the project didn’t happen on land at all, namely the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez.

None of this is to suggest caribou defenders have nothing to worry about. Whatever may be happening in Alaska, the worldwide caribou population is in steep decline, with average herd size having fallen 57 percent from historical peaks. Disrupted weather stemming from global warming is widely blamed.

Using the above facts, you can draw whatever conclusion suits you. An optimist can say the political process worked — environmental concerns didn’t warrant canceling the pipeline, but the nagging led the builders to take precautions. To which the pessimist will reply: Get out. Because of the headlong rush to exploit the fossil fuel endowment, of which this project was a prime example, the caribou are still screwed.

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References

Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing. Communicable Diseases Intelligence. Quarterly Report, Volume 28, No. 1, 2004.

Browne, Malcolm W. “Fish that Dates Back to Age of Dinosaurs is Verging on Extinction” New York Times 18 April, 1995: C4.

Browne, Malcolm W. “Second Home of Fish from Dinosaur Age is Found” New York Times 24 September, 1998.

Du Plessis, Karen et al. “Adverse Reactions to Fish” Current Allergy & Clinical Immunology 17.1 (March, 2004): 4-8.

Forey, Peter. “A home from home for coelacanths” Nature 395.24 (1998): 319.

Moosa, M. Kasim. “Observation on the Distribution of Indonesian Coelacanth” Fathom the Mystery – Aquamarine Fukushima Proceedings, 2007.

Personal communication from Dr. Peter Forey.

Sanders, Robert. “In Indonesia, Biologist Discovers Second Population of Primitive Coelacanths” Berkeleyan 7 October, 1998.

Weinberg, Samantha. “A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth”. 

 

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