Taking fish from the wild is bad... Right?

Taking fish from the wild is bad... Right?

Deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, probably somewhere around the Rio Negro and its tributaries, two Piabeiros weave their way between branches covered in razor sharp spines, step over a line of Leaf Cutter ants and slap at the mosquitos already creating angry red marks on their skin. They wade knee-deep into the water and lower their handmade nets down, using their hands to find submerged branches and guide wildlife into their nets. They have been fishing here for over 60 years, both well into the age at which in England they would be retired, but they know exactly which fish are here. They know exactly what kinds of places each fish likes to live in as well as the intimate details of their lives. Today they are collecting Cardinal Tetras and plecos, but tomorrow they will be in a different place, searching for cichlids.

The life here for a Piabeiros is one that is at perfect balance with the land and the water - these are the kind of people who bathe in the river and cook their meals in fires on the sandy river beach - but it is a life that has been progressively getting harder in the last fifty years or so. Outside of the main cities and plantations in South America the land is wet, deeply forested, and the areas that aren't wet are sandy. It is not suitable for building, farming or much else really aside being the flawless example of nature's creation that it is. Here, the two biggest commodities are: fuel, for the boats, and tropical fish.

In fact tropical fish are revered in these parts so much that in Barcelos, Brazil, there's even an annual Festival of Ornamental Fish. Teams of Cardinal Tetras (blue and red) compete against Discus/Acara (yellow and black) in the form of parades, music, performance arts and other artforms. Yes, there are actual songs about Cardinal Tetras and Discus, and they are quite catchy too!

This is a land in which the fish are revered, not just due to their beauty and importance to the forest, but because they provide up to 60% of all the monetary income these local people receive. These are not the people who are burning the forest or building dams, but the trouble is, if the trade of ornamental fish stops, they will have no choice but to retreat from the forest to go and work in a mine, a coal power plant or a plantation. In the best case scenario, they may switch to fishing for plate fish, in which case the fish are invariably killed and eaten instead of transported to the safe haven of a fishkeeper's aquarium. It's not that there isn't an abundance of life; the fish populations are generally thriving, and the locals only take as much as they need. They know that if they take too much, the fish will not be there the year after, and their livelihoods will be affected. 

Of those who do make it into our aquariums, the journey they have gone through is indeed a long one but it is not necessarily all that arduous. Here in the forest, the Piabeiros collect the fish by hand and then haul them back to their narrow one-man boats in wooden boxes. There, they take the fish to holding pens in a wider part of the river, where they are sorted and held until they have large enough numbers to take along the river to the nearest town. Some fish they tend to have a steady supply of, but they know the fish and the forest well enough that they will also catch fish to order.

A small diesel boat arrives and the fish are organised into plastic totes. Along the way, water changes are done using the river water. The locals know where the water chemistry changes depending on where they are in the river; a knowledge that is being improved upon with recent co-operatives and operations in the area involving an array of professionals such as chemists, ichthyologists, botanists and vets. If the water chemistry is different they allow the fish to acclimate. Eventually, after several days afloat and several hundred miles of very slow travel, the fish arrive at the exporter, where they are held for around a month in facilities much more closely resembling what we have here in England; filtration, prepared foods and lots of blue. The fish are fed well and packed in the familiar clear plastic bags with oxygen to be sold to importers the world over.

The main problem for fish welfare here is the lack of food the fish are given while they are on the boats heading into town; for a small fish going a good two or three days without food can be a pretty big deal. Particular species that come to mind are Otocinclus catfish which typically won't accept prepared foods, and Wallacei catfish which very much prefer a live meal - but for a healthy pleco or other medium to large sized fish this really isn't too much of a problem. It isn't in anyone's interest to sell sickly animals. In fact, fish prices for the small species such as Cardinal Tetras are now so poor that the Piabeiros are now switching their focus to catfish and cichlids; fish that can cope with the journey and have a larger ticket price at the end for the people who risk their lives in Anaconda and Piranha infested waters every day collecting them.

The Amazon rainforest has a very cyclical nature; around June or July there have been a good 3-4 months of rain and the river is at its highest. The fish are plentiful, breeding, and thriving. But if you look at the same part of the river in the dry season, there's not really a river to be seen at all. The pools, streams and estuaries have dried up, and what water is left is very shallow, hot and food is scarce. The fish that tend to survive the dry season are those large enough to migrate elsewhere, those that are tough as nails, and the fry from last season's spawns. When the sun is high and the river is low, fish populations can be as low as ten or twenty percent of what they would have been in the wet season.

Of course, this is a natural process that has been going on for many thousands of years, but with each passing year in our modern world, the Earth's temperature rises and even in the deepest corners of our natural world the effects are being felt. Palm Oil plantations are changing the PH of the soil, fires are beginning to spiral out of control, and the dry season's river bed gets hotter, shallower and more devoid of life.

In places in the world where natural habitats have been destroyed in the past, there have been species of ornamental fish which have survived and in some cases, small populations have been reintroduced in more suitable areas, sometimes by accident through the release or escape of captive specimens. One such example is the White Cloud Mountain Minnow, originally from its namesake the White Cloud or Baiyun Mountain in China. It was in fact extinct in the wild for 20 years, only kept alive because of keen fishkeepers who worked out how to breed them. They can now be found on a remote island far from the mountain as well as in pretty much every large aquatic shop across the country, with variations such as long-finned or gold available.

For a great many fish in South America, such as plecos and other catfish but also for many characins and oddballs, we haven't worked out how to breed them yet, so if they were to die out that would be it. Unfortunately for many of these species it is very much up to humankind to decide their fate; not only through greenhouse gas emissions and cutting down deforestation, but having a backup plan in case things don't turn around the way we want them to. The trade of live ornamental fish from South America supports not only the fish collectors and their families, but also allows these guardians of the forest to connect breeders, researchers and environmentalists to thousands of fascinating and beautiful ornamental tropical fish.

If you would like to learn more about current projects in South America involving tropical fish or would like to delve even deeper into this ecological and humanitarian issue, you can check out the links below (not sponsored)

Project Piaba | Buy a Fish, Save a Tree!

Wild caught fish - OATA - The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (ornamentalfish.org)


Working together to conserve freshwater species - Shoal (shoalconservation.org)




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