In the Amazon, a giant fish helps save the jungle

CARAUARI, Brazil (HPD) — Even in the world’s most biodiverse rainforest, the pirarucú, also known as arapaima, stands out.

First, there is its size: it can weigh up to 200 kilos (440 pounds), by a wide margin the largest of the 2,300 known fish species in the Amazon. It is found mainly in alluvial plain lakes in the Amazon basin, including the Medio Juruá region.

Second, that gigantic fish almost disappeared from Juruá not long ago, when boats swept the lakes with large nets. This illegal and unsustainable fishing left the river and the indigenous communities struggling to obtain their basic food. That caused the pirarucú to be designated as an endangered species, unless its trade is closely monitored by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

However, something incredible happened. The fish has returned to the lakes of Medio Juruá. The story of how people from different backgrounds were engaged to cooperate on many levels offers a glimpse of what is possible. Amazon veterans say they haven’t seen that anywhere else in the huge region.

The change began in the late 1990s. With the assistance of a Dutch Catholic priest, the rubber tappers organized and led a campaign to persuade the federal government to create the Medio Juruá Extractive Reserve. They proposed that riverside communities could consume from the forest and its lakes—up to a certain point—and within protected areas.

And it worked. Now, local communities produce açaí palm, vegetable oils and rubber while leaving the jungle undisturbed. The greatest of the successes has been the handling of the pirarucú.

The riverside communities, organized in associations, also reached an agreement with the neighboring Deni indigenous people, who have already suffered invasions by rubber tappers and fishermen. Now they are all part of the controlled pirarucu fishery, which has improved relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

Bringing the fish back has required social organization, cooperation, and complex logistics. Illegal fishing was drastically reduced and now the pirarucú abounds.

That virtuous cycle occurs in the Carauari region, which stretches 650 kilometers along the Juruá River and is home to 35,000 people.

To see how things could have turned out, one need only look to neighboring Javari Valley, where British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were murdered in June.

The background to this tragedy is a decades-long dispute between indigenous communities and former rubber tappers hired by local businessmen for illegal fishing, especially pirarucú. Two local fishermen confessed to committing the murders.

Illegal fishing is rampant in Brazil. It is the second most frequent environmental crime in protected areas after cutting down trees, according to an academic study based on official data. Brazil’s conservation agency issued 1,160 illegal fishing violations—a quarter of all violations—in a recent five-year period.

“Javari is a portrait of what Medio Juruá was in the 1980s,” Manoel Cunha, a leader of the local rubber tappers, told The Associated Press during a boat trip to Sao Raimundo, his home community and one of those involved. in regulated fishing.

“We managed to get rid of encroaching fishing companies and fishermen with monitoring and management. You have been on this river for several days now and you have not seen any fishing boats, except for those of our organizations. There is no more room for them here.”

Pirarucu fishing is done once a year, around September, the low water period. The fishing quotas are possible due to another incredible characteristic of the pirarucú: It is one of the few species of fish in the world that comes to the surface to breathe. It does so with a big splash, sticking its red tail out of the water.

A local fisherman and scholar in the neighboring Mamirarua region created a way to take advantage of that and count the fish, which stay below the surface for no more than 20 minutes. The federal government has validated that counting method.

Certified fishermen carry out the count once a year, after receiving a course. Under the law, only 30% of the pirarucú in a specific area can be fished the following year.

This controlled fishing has led to an increase in the population of the fish in the regions where it is used. In Sao Raimundo, there were 1,335 pirarucu fish in adjoining lakes in 2011, when controlled fishing began. Last year there were 4,092, according to their data.

In the Carauari region, the number of pirarucú rose from 4,916 in 2011 to 46,839 ten years later.

An HPD team accompanied the first of the seven days of fishing in Sao Raimundo. Imagine a few dozen houses with running water and connected by well-maintained wooden footbridges amid açaí palms. Thirty-four families live there. Most belong to the extended Cunha family, whose ancestors came to the region from Brazil’s impoverished northeast during the rubber boom.

“Our pirarucú is so tasty that everyone who tries it falls in love with its flavor and wants more,” said Rosilda da Cunha, a sister of Manoel who lives in Sao Raimundo, in conversation with the HPD.

The fish has generated good income for the community, he added. This year, the goal is to purchase a solar panel system to replace a diesel-powered electric generator. Another part of the money goes to the members of the community who participate in the fishing. Salaries for women and men are equal.

To catch the pirarucú, the fishermen use special and strong nets that they weave themselves. Its holes are large enough to allow the smallest specimens to escape, since fishing for fish smaller than 1.5 meters (five feet) is prohibited.

When the fishermen catch a fish, they pull the net and hit the fish on the head. They then place it in their little boat. When the fish is too heavy, two or three of them are required to complete the job.

The pirarucú are taken from the lakes to a large boat on the Juruá River. There they are disemboweled, a task performed mostly by women, and placed on ice. All the production is bought by the Association of Rural Producers of Carauari, known as Asproc, the organization that brings together the region, so that the fishermen never have to deal with intermediaries.

Founded by rubber tappers who wanted to free themselves from conditions of almost slave labor, Asproc has become one of the most important grassroots organizations in the entire Amazon. It manages programs ranging from sanitation to community markets to college education, introducing innovations in the process. Now, he sells the pirarucú in Brazil’s main cities, including Sao Paulo and Brasilia, a complex task that requires several days of transport by water and highways and usually takes more than two weeks.

Asproc’s success has attracted several collaborations. One of them is paradoxical: with the United States Forest Service, which supported the creation of a brand, Gosto da Amazônia (The Taste of the Amazon), which promotes pirarucú throughout Brazil. Another is a collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which helped finance a fish processing warehouse in the city of Carauari, where pirarucú is cut, frozen and packaged. .

“This project is unique and requires a strong governance structure,” Ted Gehr, USAID’s mission director in Brazil, told the HPD during his first visit to the Sao Raimundo community. “Everyone agrees that they made a huge sacrifice by not being able to catch all the pirarucú that was available, but knowing that they will reproduce more and that in the long term they will be more valuable.”

The Medio Juruá region benefits from being remote. There is no road access. So far it has been spared the deforestation and fires that have devastated other parts of the Amazon, but the smoke that turned skies gray in September is a reminder that destruction is not far off. The challenge is to be a strong organization and economy to prevent future threats, says Cunha.

“If we hadn’t organized ourselves through fisheries management to protect our environment and our fish, instead of others taking it, we could have been in the same situation as our Javari colleagues,” adds Cunha, who is the head of the Medio Juruá Reserve, a position usually assigned to government officials. “If they had organized earlier, they could have saved the lives of those two comrades.”


The climate and environment coverage of The Associated Press is supported by several private foundations. The HPD is solely responsible for all content.

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