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COVID-19 compounds a poaching problem targeting the Amazon’s pirarucu

  • There’s been a reported surge in illegal fishing of pirarucu, also known as arapaima, a massive Amazonian fish, in the Brazilian city of Manaus.
  • The fishing season is supposed to be closed from November to March, under a policy imposed in 2005 to protect fish populations and the income of traditional fishers.
  • The policy has been criticized for effectively subsidizing fishers, prompting an increase in their numbers, along with frequent violations of the close season.
  • The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of enforcement due to lockdowns have compounded the problem, pushing more people into illegal fishing to earn money.

In early March, the fish markets in the Brazilian Amazonian city of Manaus were full of fresh and dazzling specimens of local species such as matrinxã (Brycon amazonicus) and tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum). It’s an incongruous display, given that the fishing season is supposed to be closed from November until March.

“Our team is much reduced due to the pandemic, so it’s tough to catch people fishing illegally,” says Carlos Edwar Carvalho Freitas, a professor at Amazonas Federal University (UFAM) and member of the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA).

Working from his home office, Freitas says that every time he goes to the fish market, the species he sees on sale set off alarm bells. “There are many illegally sized fish,” he says, adding that even the species that are supposed to be certified as sustainable “are being sold without the official seal.”

Known as the “conformity identity seal,” it’s part of the Amazonian Seal program that was created nine years ago to certify that products harvested from the rainforest meet basic sustainability requirements.

One such requirement is that the source of fish must be identified. Long-lived species like the pirarucu or arapaima (Arapaima gigas) and the tambaqui must come from certified fisheries management areas and cannot be caught outside of these designated zones. These are sites that are managed by registered fishers who know to respect the reproductive cycles of the fish. Today, the pirarucu is considered an endangered species in Brazil, and fishing it outside management areas has been illegal for the past 20 years.

In the villages responsible for pirarucu management areas, a sustainable cycle has been established. Legal fishing has helped both the local economy and the recovery of the species’ population, according to data from the Juruá Institute.

One of the institute’s co-founders, João Vitor Campos, received the 2020 Rolex Award for Enterprise as one of the world’s most influential environmental activists. He has made it clear that his aim is to protect environments that have suffered from predatory fishing practices in the recent past, as well as to inspire women in riverbank communities to take on more important roles. A traditionally male-dominated trade, today pirarucu fishing is attracting women thanks to female empowerment initiatives run by NGOs like the Juruá Institute.

In Amazonas state’s riverbank communities, sustainable fishing of pirarucu has helped stabilize fish populations and guarantee an income for the locals. Image by Carlos Peres.

Overfishing in pandemic times

Recently, however, the economy, and community well-being in general, have taken a massive hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, is the hardest-hit city in the second-hardest-hit country, with the health care system collapsing under the caseload of coronavirus infections. There have been so many deaths that authorities have resorted to burying the dead in mass graves. An increase in illegal fishing is just one of the many impacts of the ongoing crisis.

“I recently held a meeting with the state fishing council. The objective was to start up patrols again but the situation makes it impossible,” Freitas says, adding that there’s an abundance of evidence of illegal fishing.

Under the weakened state of IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency, the problem is likely widespread, he says: “If this is going on in the city, things must be much worse in the rural areas.”

Brazil’s largest freshwater fish, and indeed the world’s largest scaled fish, the pirarucu is emblematic of the current problem, and just the tip of the iceberg. A fully grown pirarucu can reach 3 meters (10 feet) in length and weigh 300 kilograms (660 pounds), making it an especially fascinating animal for those who see it at expositions or on riverboat trips in the Amazon.

It has to surface for air every 15 minutes or so, where it becomes an easy target for fishers. In January alone, more than 3 tons of illegally fished pirarucu were seized at the port of Manaus. Freitas says the tambaqui is another species suffering from overfishing.

Both species are subject to a policy known as the defeso. Introduced in 2005, it stipulates an annual close season during which communities are compensated for not fishing. It’s aimed at both protecting fish populations and ensuring a flow of income for Amazonian fishing communities, composed largely of artisanal fishers.

A 2014 study by Freitas and UFAM colleague Maria Angélica de Almeida Corrêa and James R. Kahn fromWashington and Lee University in Virginia, U.S., was largely critical of the defeso. It showed that by effectively subsidizing fishing in the region, the policy had prompted an uncontrolled boom in the number of fishers. And without enforcement, fishing limits were routinely flouted, leading to a drop in fish populations.

Freitas and his co-authors wrote at the time that “the current policy is worse than no policy at all.” Today, with the economic breakdown brought on by COVID-19, illegal fishing has become a source of income. According to Freitas, penalties for poaching are light, and lockdowns imposed in response to the pandemic mean that controls are basically non-existent.

For the defeso to work as planned, he says, “it has to be enforced, and economic incentives must be created for those who actually follow the law.”

“It can’t be an indiscriminate process like it is today,” Freitas adds. “It’s more of a social assistance policy than a protective policy for wild animals.”

Banner image of community-harvested pirarucus in a village in rural Amazonas state, by Carlos Peres.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on March 16, 2021.

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