Site icon Conservation news

How predatory fishing has decimated Brazil coastal fish populations for decades

  • A study by the ReefSYN group analyzed reef fish landings between 1950 and 2015, finding significant changes in the species caught.
  • Reduced catch volumes, increased diversity of species and catches of small fish at the bottom of the food chain indicate unsustainable fishing.
  • The lack of updated official data since 2015 makes fisheries management, monitoring and control more difficult in Brazil, but new measures by the Ministries of Fisheries and the Environment aim to improve this scenario.

When he was a teenager at the end of the 1980s, Evanildo Sena would come back from a day of fishing dragging 5 or 6 tons of fish with his canoe at a time — a task for which he needed the help of one or two buddies. But things have changed radically since those days on the Arraial do Cabo coast in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the fisherman says.

“Back then, I would catch 300 or 400 kilos (660 or 880 pounds) of swordfish every time I went out. Now they have practically disappeared from our region,” he says.

In the old days, swordfish were caught one at a time with a hook. Today, Sena fishes anything that shows up during the season — anchovy, squid, horse-eye jack, blue runner or chub mackerel — some of these in smaller numbers than before. But most of Sena’s income today comes from collecting mussels along the coast during the legal harvesting season, which runs from January to August.

Sena also says the number of large commercial fishing vessels has increased since the year 2000. They are allowed to fish up to the limits of the Arraial do Cabo Marine Extractive Reserve, 4.8 kilometers (3 miles) from the coast. Within the reserve, only traditional fishing is allowed.

The timing coincides with a history of shrinking fisheries numbers along the Brazilian coastline, says a study based on a database of coral reef fishing data from 1950-2015. The study was developed by the ReefSYN group, a project including researchers from nine Brazilian universities.

Traditional fishing along the Ceará coast. Image courtesy of José Amorim Reis-Filho.

The study focuses on reef fish, which live around coral reefs during at least one phase of their lives. Brazil’s coastline is home to around 400 of these species.

The authors of the study interviewed by Mongabay say that in Brazil’s north and northeast, most of these fish are caught by traditional fishers, while in the south and southeast, most are caught by industrial fishing vessels. Brazilian legislation defines subclasses for both traditional and industrial fishing craft, representing a gradation of boats ranging from small to large.

The study identifies 110 reef fish species in fish landings (the number of fish that actually arrive in port, discounting the loss that occurs on the way after capture) during the period. The largest fisheries volumes were caught in the northeast, southeast and north, respectively, with volumes increasing from 1950 until the end of the 1990s, when landing volumes peaked and were then followed by the continual decline of many reef fish populations from 2000 until today.

Fish landings in Brazil between 1950 and 2015 (in tons), showing a drop in numbers after 2000. Graph courtesy of ReefSYN

The study points to predatory fishing as the main reason for reduced numbers this century. However, it is worthy to note that guaranteeing fisheries sustainability has less to do with the class of the vessels (whether they are traditional or industrial craft) than with adherence to control parameters, monitoring and legalization. This means that both artisan and industrial fishing can be sustainable or predatory, depending on how the fishing is carried out.

A second finding in the study is that the mix of fish species caught has changed over the years due to the availability of fisheries stock, which leads to increased diversity among the fish captured.

“We have reports from fishermen in Bahia that they are catching very small fish like the sergeant major damselfish (Abudefduf saxatilis). This means that we are fishing almost everything that is out there, from predators at the top of the food chain down to herbivorous fish,” affirms Mariana Bender, a biologist at Santa Maria Federal University’s Department of Ecology and Evolution and senior author of the paper.

“This means that we are diminishing resources and that continued exploitation of this diversity will lead to the collapse of marine systems, with impacts beyond coral reefs, affecting people and tourism,” Bender says. “Without management and monitoring, society will be greatly impacted, especially the fishing communities who depend the most on these resources.”

The real effect of predatory fishing in Brazil tends to be worse than that addressed by the study, as there are no refined and updated data: The most recent government records on the sector are from 2015. “We used data on the state level because there are no available data on the municipal level in Brazil. It was very challenging to arrive at these data,” Bender explains.

Because of the lack of more varied and robust data in Brazil, the study can affirm a drop in the volume of fish landings, but not determine the percentages of specific species lost.

Artisan fishing with a surrounding net in Salvador, Bahia. Image courtesy of José Amorim Reis-Filho.

“There are no data on most of the fisheries stock in Brazil, on how much total biomass there is of specific stocks in different locations,” says Linda Eggertsen, co-author of the study. This type of information is important for being able to manage Brazil’s fisheries. The only existing data of this type in Brazil are on the red snapper (Lutjanus sp), which is caught in the north, Eggertsen says.

Another important piece of data also lacking in Brazil for determining the volume of fish stock is the energy exerted in the fishing process. In other words, it is important to know how much time people spent catching that volume of fish, how big the boats were, how many boats there were and the sizes of their nets.

“These days, fewer tons are caught as compared to the old days, but we don’t know exactly how this relates to the size of the stock, because we don’t know how much energy is spent on fishing today,” Eggertsen says. According to the authors, the most probable scenario today is more energy spent for smaller catches because people have overfished.

And fewer fish caught has led to fewer traditional fishers. Arraial do Cabo today is home to about 1,200 registered fishing professionals — not as many as in the old days, Sena says. Back when swordfish were abundant, 75 boats would head out to fish, while today the number of canoes trying their luck in the same place can be counted on one hand.

The scenario has repeated itself in Ponta do Corumbau, a traditional fishing village in the municipality of Prado, Bahia, where Edimilson Conceição do Carmo has dedicated 20 of his 44 years to fishing. An Indigenous person of the Pataxó people from Barra Velha village, today Carmo works in environmental education and coral reef monitoring at the Coral Vivo conservation and research project in Porto Seguro.

Carmo has been watching fisheries numbers decline since he was a child, and he has seen the near-extinction of some species such as the mero (genus Epinephelus) and the greenback parrotfish (Scarus trispinosus). He has also seen changes in the lives of professional fishers who today must fish farther away from the shore and spend more time at sea in order to catch more fish. “It’s not like it was before when we could fish right off the beach. That doesn’t happen anymore. Before, fishermen fished less and caught more — today, you fish more and catch less,” he reports.

Greenbeak parrotfish (Scarus trispinosus) populations have declined along the Brazilian coastline. Image courtesy of Linda Eggertsen.

If on the one hand traditional activities have fallen off, the number of large vessels has increased. This is especially evident in the Porto Seguro region, which is not a marine reserve like Corumbau, where traditional fishing practices follow a management plan.

In his work as environmental educator, Carmo speaks frequently with fishers about ways to guarantee the sustainability of their profession. “We provide the fishing community with information about which species can be caught, the right season for fishing and about size limits. I have seen much change in the amount of knowledge fishing professionals carry over the years; today they are more conscious of what they fish,” Carmo says.

Integrated management to keep fish numbers up

The fight against predatory fishing begins with information. “Monitoring is fundamental in understanding which fish are caught along the coast, how much effort is spent in catching them and where the product goes. We don’t know how much of a certain species is consumed here in Brazil and what is exported — most of the available data just labels everything as ‘fish’,” the researchers affirm. They recommend that fisheries management include local people in processes and that there be greater controls over local markets with respect to which species are sold in order to protect species that should not be caught.

Gilberto Sales, director of the environment ministry’s department of shared fisheries resources management, agrees. “Inspections do happen and have gradually increased in recent years, but fisheries management depends on elements more associated with monitoring and controls. This has been the biggest challenge in Brazil for many years because of the institutional instability of fisheries management,” he says.

The current Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture (MPA) was re-created by the current administration in January 2023 after having been reduced to a secretariat under the previous administration. “As fisheries management is very centralized on the federal level, especially in the marine coast area, instability in the structure made it impossible to maintain continuous monitoring programs.”

Artisan fishing on the Ceará coast. Image courtesy of José Amorim Reis-Filho.

Since 2023, the environment ministry and the MPA have shared fisheries management and are working on proposals to improve the current scenario. Some restructuring has happened, Sales says, including recuperation of monitoring systems based on partnerships with universities and research institutes, the re-creation and improvement of local management forums and the revision of Brazil’s main fisheries legislation, INI 10, which establishes a permissions matrix with details on each legally catchable species. The MPA is building an integrated online database to organize the information attained through monitoring.

“Every step we take is urgent, but the most important step we have made with the MPA is to resuscitate local management forums, which had been inactive for a long time. Without them, there is no space for scientific discussion or communication with the sector, which also generates a gap in monitoring,” affirms Sales, mentioning that the forums manage to create solutions that are more closely related to real problems in fishing. The forums are composed of managing government agencies, NGOs, universities and fishing professionals on both the national (which has been continuous) and local levels.

Sales says he believes that the two ministries will manage to finish a new decree for fisheries management, revive the local forums and revise the permissions matrix by the end of 2024. Aside from creating greater normative stability, these actions are expected to bring more effective monitoring results in the coming years, Sales says. But political instability continues to be a problem that places fisheries management at risk in the long term. “Our dream is to create an autocracy to manage fisheries in Brazil, like IBAMA,” the federal environmental protection agency.

Until that dream becomes reality, though, the partnerships, dialogues and new legal structure will establish a base for strengthening fisheries management in Brazil, which will contribute to sustainable fishing and the protection of biodiversity.


Banner image: Artisan fishing on the Ceará coast. Image courtesy of José Amorim Reis-Filho

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Apr. 1, 2024.

Exit mobile version