The African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme


In 2000, at the dawn of the new millennium, a living population of coelacanths was found off Sodwana Bay and the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) was born. The discovery of this enigmatic fish provided yet another chapter to an amazing South African story that had played out on the world stage between 1938 and 1952.
To recap: in 1938 Ms Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young curator at the East London Museum, brought a peculiar fish trawled off the Chalumna River mouth to the attention of Prof JLB Smith, a Chemistry Professor at Rhodes University, who had a deep passion for fish. His realisation that this fish was in fact a species that was thought by scientists to have been extinct for 70 million years resulted in a hunt to find another specimen. This hunt lasted for 14 years until 1952 when a second specimen was found in the Comoros Islands. The story is told by Smith in his bestselling book, Old Fourlegs – The Story of the Coelacanth. The discovery and the excitement it created helped towards the establishment in 1968 by Smith’s widow and research partner, Professor Margaret Smith, of a world recognised centre of ichthyology (the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology) of which Margaret was the first director and which is now the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (NRF-SAIAB). It inspired numerous foundational academic books such as Smiths’ Sea Fishes, generations of ichthyologists who have plied their profession all around the world and ultimately the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme.

Initiated by the Department of Science & Technology (DST), ACEP is now a major multi-disciplinary east coast research programme funded primarily by the DST but using research equipment and platforms from numerous research agencies including the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA - Oceans & Coasts), Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, South African Environmental Observation Network (NRF-SAEON) and NRF-SAIAB. ACEP is managed by the National Research Foundation through NRF-SAIAB, which is one of its National Facilities.

ACEP aims to ensure that South Africa has in-depth knowledge of our east coast marine and coastal environment and its resources, to ensure sustainable development while benefitting its citizens. This can only be done by undertaking the required research and producing a representative generation of future marine scientists and resource managers
which reflects the diverse demography of our country.