From river to aquarium A personal perspective of the Rio Negro fishery by Dominic Whitmee

OATA's Chief Executive Dominic Whitmee visited the Rio Negro to see the work of Project Piaba, a non-profit organisation established to study and foster environmentally and socially beneficial home aquarium fish trade.

Unseasonally high water levels when I visited in January 2017 are making life difficult for the Piaberos, the artisanal fisherman of the Cardinal Tetra unique to the Barcelos region of the Rio Negro in Brazil.

The Piaberos from the village of Daracua, upstream of Barcelos, will often paddle for between one or two hours to find good fishing sites. They don’t normally use the small outboard motors on their canoes in order to keep their costs down because the margins these fishermen operate to are extremely low.

For 30,000 fish they will receive around US$148, just US$0.005 for each fish. After fuel costs they are left with a profit of just over US$100.

Pictured is the village of Daracua on the Rio Negro. At this time of year a beach normally stretches 100 yards into the river channel but this year (2017) the water is already close to the Piaberos’ homes.

Once a potential site is found they will walk through the shallows using a trained eye to spot the shoals of these small colourful fish.They tap the water surface with their fingertips to tease out the fish and using a paddle encourage them into a small handheld net.

This is an extremely low impact fishery. Once they leave their chosen fishing site there is no discernible evidence they were ever there.

Yet catching fish when climactic conditions are not in their favour can be very time-consuming. On one fishing trip with a couple of Piaberos, after 30 minutes only 40 cardinal tetras were caught, a potential income of only US$0.20.

As one of the fishermen said sadly: “This is the life of a Piabero”.

This is one of the reasons why the collecting season takes place when the waters are receding from the annual high water season, usually in March and then in the summer months.

Up until 10 years ago approximately 40 million Cardinal Tetras were exported annually from this region of Brazil, destined for the home aquarium trade (Chao 1993). At one point this fishery directly and indirectly accounted for 60% of the region’s economic output (Prang 1996).

The social, cultural and economic impact of the fishery is so significant it is celebrated once a year in an annual festival in the PiabaDome where teams of dancers fight it out as Tetras and Discus for supremacy over a period of six hours, attracting people from far and wide across the region.

Forty million fish taken from the wild annually may seem high but the majority of the trade is the Cardinal Tetra species which is extremely abundant and fecund. As a result, the seemingly high take has never affected the availability of fish.

However, over recent years the fishery has been contracting, with only six million Cardinal Tetras being exported annually in recent years (IBAMA). Once there were a thousand Piaberos (fishermen), now there are only 300 (Chao and Prada-Pedreros, 1995).

This may be viewed as good news by those who consider that there should be no place in modern society for trade in animals taken from the wild. However, this is a view that does not consider the wider impacts of a decline in this fishery.

A decline which should be of concern, not just for the families of those reliant on the fishery, but for anyone who cares about the natural environment of this part of the world and the long-term capacity of the Amazon rainforest to absorb the carbon we emit to support our modern western lifestyles.

The unspoilt Rio Negro in the heart of the Amazon Basin - the planet's largest terrestrial carbon sink

It is the Piaberos that act as stewards of the natural environment where they live, in areas so remote there is no-one else to do it.

It is these small local fishing communities that act as guardians for the local environment because they know how important a good environment is to the maintenance of the fishery on which they and their families depend.

Were it not for the small income they derive from the fishery they would likely have to resort to environmentally damaging livelihoods, such as food fishing, slash and burn agriculture or illegal logging (and thus reducing the carbon absorbing capacity of the Amazon region).

Not because it is what they would wish, but because they have no choice if they are to feed their children. Alternatively, they could move from these small outlying villages to the cities of Barcelos or Manaus, often only to discover there is no work available for them there.

However, it is not only the unusual weather conditions that are affecting the industry. There are problems in getting the fish from source to the point of export. The demand remains for these fish, especially in the US, but supply has become erratic and unreliable because there is no-one to ensure that facilities are in place to ensure the fish can arrive at the right time and in the right condition for export to a market which demands high quality and healthy fish.

Left is the now sinking old transit station, which is very dangerous, but is still used by some of the braver fishermen. Right is the newer transit station which has a small capacity but is at least safe.

But the problems do not stop there. There have been criticisms about the quality and condition of the Cardinal Tetras coming from this fishery. This can be in part be explained by the problems with the supply chain but is also a consequence of poor handling during capture, collection and transport.

This is where Project Piaba comes in. An NGO set up to foster this Rio Negro fishery in recognition of its environmental and socio-economic importance. Project Piaba has been working for more than 25 years to secure the long-term viability of the fishery. A small group of volunteers travels annually to the region to speak to the Piaberos in order to understand the problems they face. With them they bring others from business and elsewhere who might be able to assist in securing the future of the fishery. This was the trip I was able to take part in.

The Project has achieved major successes via its Train the Trainers programme through which it has trained people locally on best handling practices. These newly trained trainers can then visit the Piaberos throughout the region to pass on the techniques in a culturally appropriate way. This has resulted in observable improvements in the quality and condition of fish arriving for export. One exporter has even started offering trained Piaberos a higher price for their fish, and Piaberos themselves are asking for more regular training opportunities. Although still in its early stages this programme offers much promise in achieving the objective of providing healthy fish to overseas markets.

Pictured here is Arnold Lugo, a graduate of Project Piaba’s Train the Trainers programme, facilitating a discussion with Piaberos and their families.

Project Piaba also brings with it expert veterinarians who can not only advise on appropriate handling practices but also undertake research on local fish species to better understand disease risks and how they might be addressed. Project Piaba volunteers have been talking to local exporters to understand what it might take for them to invest in the facilities required to support the fishery. This will be key to revitalising this fishery and supporting the livelihoods of the Piaberos. Whilst at a very early stage there are some promising signs.

Pictured is Dr Tim Miller-Morgan, Veterinary expert from Oregon State University and Project Piaba volunteer, who is examining parasites in locally caught ornamental fish.

Another interesting angle has been Project Piaba's work to increase awareness about the benefits of wild caught fish from the fishery. It has entered into partnership with a number of public aquariums, mainly in the US, which now include information about the species that come from the Rio Negro and the social, economic and environmental importance of supporting the fishery. It is hoped that this will also encourage a demand for wild caught fish from the region, thus supporting the long-term viability of the fishery, and the consequential environmental benefits it provides.

The challenges faced by this fishery are significant and will be difficult to overcome. However, they are not insurmountable.

The commitment of Project Piaba volunteers is obvious and its success is vital, not just for the families that rely on it but also for the long-term environmental security of this part of the Amazon basin.

This is just one of many stories from around the world. Wild caught artisanal fisheries not only support the livelihoods of people in some of the poorest parts of the world but they are also home to the guardians of our natural environment without whom environmentally destructive practices would undoubtedly take place.

Project Piaba is a non-profit organisation that relies on the generous support of those keen to support the long-term viability of the Rio Negro fishery and the environmental benefits it provides. Visit the Project Piaba website for further information about its work and to make a donation.


Photos by Dominic Whitmee

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