By Annie Cooper, Wildlife Conservation Society – Brazil
Fish by moonlight
It is several hours after moonrise and I’m on the shores of Lake Ayapuá, deep in the Brazilian Amazon. Still wearing his straw hat, Mario Pereira de Sousa slips into the third and final fish pen, as it bobs gently on the lake surface. It is full of captive fish moving slowly. Up to his chin in warm dark water, Mario gently passes a nylon net under them before handing its edges to other village fishermen. Together they built the three pens that dot this remote rainforest lake and now, naked feet balanced on the pen’s wooden rims, they slowly draw up the net. Soon the water is a-glitter with flashing blues, yellows and greens as the haul is brought delicately to the surface. The pen is full of discus fish, named for their flattened shape, but now set to launch the remote communities of Uixi, Pinheiros and Evaristo, some 280 km south west of Manaus, on an economic trajectory of hope and sustainability.
Flapping and shimmering in the shallows, the CD-sized discus flag their colors, stripes and bars, a splendor that has made them sought after by fish keepers across the world.
Still swaying on the fish pen rims, the eight villagers form a production line, transferring from net to box, and ending with the fish waiting and ready for the two-day journey to Manaus, the state capital. One of the discus wranglers is Assis Guerreiro Brito. Born in Uixi, at 39 he is now vice president of its Community Association, and part of a project for sustainably managed discus. Fishing for food has always been part of his day, but now so is fishing for discus.
Assis tells me with a smile, that the beautiful fish in the pens certainly don’t get there by themselves. Things start with a shrubbery. Assis and other villagers cut branches from the araça bushes along the lake shore and then push them into the lake bottom mud to create dense shady patches. These attract discus, which they detect either by directly diving down to them or by staying in the boat, placing a hand on the araça twigs and feeling the vibrations caused by the fishes bodies as they swim in and out of the branches. Discus normally take 2-3 days to colonize an araça thicket, says Assis. Then the bush is surrounded with nets and, once they are sure the area is stingray and electric eel-free, the net is drawn tight and the fish carried gently to the pens. “It’s not difficult,” Assis tells me. “The fish live near us. It takes a couple of days to build these fish pens, and a couple more working with araça branches – we use araça because the fish stay nice and safe among the branches. In three days of fishing we caught about a thousand fish, though we released many because the quality wasn’t great.” Unlike most ornamental fish operations, the managed harvest has a new focus on selecting the best quality fish.
For the seventy-odd families in the three communities, edible fish like tucunaré provide their main source of income. But they get only 45-90 cents per kilo, and the average fish weighs around 3-4kg. By contrast, each sustainably managed discus fetches between $4.50 and $23, depending on its colors and patterns. The fishermen have decided to share the work and the returns of the discus project equally. It will never replace the communities’ main income, but does provide a very welcome addition. As with any cash income in the communities, a proportion of the profits go to the Community Association. Assis’s wife, Ana Souza Viana, cooks me a delicious meal of fresh eggs, rice, and beans, and assures me that payments to the Community Association fund are essential: “It helps us in emergencies, like to get to a hospital, and buys things that benefit the whole village, such as our electricity generator.”
The Piagaçu Purus Sustainable Development Reserve
Perched on the water’s edge a few kilometers down a wide channel running southwest from the vast and beautiful Lake Ayapuá, Uixi is part of Piagaçu Purus Sustainable Development Reserve. In addition to Uixi, Pinheiros and Evaristo, the reserve has 52 other small communities, pin-pricked across 834,245 ha of várzea (seasonally flooded forest), higher, never-flooded terra firme rainforest, and lakes including Ayapuá. One-third the size of Vermont, Piagaçu Purus has been a sustainable development reserve since 2003. Within it, communities and conservationists work together to balance biodiversity conservation with achieving sustainable livelihoods for traditional communities, with only a closely controlled amount of commercial activity.
Instead of roads, the main transport artery is the Purus River, which originates in the Peruvian Andes and snakes its way through more than 3,000km of rainforest before joining the Amazon itself. I live in Manaus, which is only two day’s travel from Uixi and Pinheiros, but the fishermen have no means of getting their fish here. Instead, they rely on regatões, the boat-based middlemen of the Amazon, to take their products to markets, whether they be Brazil nuts, açai berries, fish, wood, or (illegal) caiman meat. In a pattern of trade that echoes the exploitation of the rubber boom of a century ago, the regatões sell goods at prices three times that in Manaus, and pay a fraction of the worth of local people’s products. But, these river traders also provide an essential means of communication in this complex waterworld and are often the only emergency transport to hospitals.
Research that cuts out the middleman
But the discus are different: unlike other transactions, there are no middlemen involved. Instead, it’s a collaboration between the fisherman, a buyer who purchases from them directly at fair prices, and the Piagaçu Institute (the name of the institute and the Piagaçu Purus reserve comes from the Tupi-Guarani indigenous language, meaning ‘immense heart of the Purus’). This research institute was established to understand the biodiversity of the reserve, and provide the scientific evidence needed for sustainable management, including fish and fishing, fauna and hunting, agriculture, and turtle conservation. It is funded by the Moore Foundation through a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society – Brazil, where I work. The researcher responsible for the discus project is Felipe Rossoni, who joined the Piagaçu Institute in 2005 and invited me to join the expedition to Lake Ayapuá.
“At first we were met with suspicion and threats, as people’s experience was that outsiders would exploit them and their resources,” Felipe tells me. “So I lived in the reserve for a while, to build the trust we needed to work with local people. Our research isn’t just about environmental sustainability, it needs social foundations, so it’s always developed in collaboration with local people.”
Four years after his work began, Felipe had a masters degree on the ecology of the fish and history of fishing in the Piagaçu Purus Reserve, and he and the fishermen began developing their ideas about how the discus could be managed sustainably. “Together we identified discus as a species with potential – the villagers had sold them in the past, but had no way of knowing their true value. Unscrupulous buyers had paid 60 cents per fish or even less for discus that are worth twenty times that. And they had no interest in a long term partnership – dropping contact with the villagers once the deal was done.”