A Fish- Export Bottleneck: Barcelos

Author: Mike Tuccinardi

Continuing his tale of Amazonian adventures, a fish importer reports on a busy hub of the export trade where a yearly festival celebrates the local ornamental fish industry.

Our Voyage Begins

It was another bright and brilliant Amazon day aboard the Dorinha. Several of us had camped out on the top deck, where Drs. Tim Miller Morgan and Nick St. Erne—two prominent aquatic veterinarians—had begun doing pathology workups and water quality testing on a number of aquarium fish specimens we had picked up in Manaus. It was amidst a stretch of this quiet, focused work that I noticed something unusual—other boats on the river. Soon the waters around us became a flurry of activity, and it wasn’t long before a bend in the river revealed one of our main destinations, the city of Barcelos, in the distance.

Ornamental Fish Festival Barcelos

As we approached the port it was impossible not to notice that the other boats, and the city itself, had been completely outfitted with flags, balloons, and even crepe paper in two competing color schemes—red and blue versus black and yellow. I soon learned that these two colors represent the two rival “teams” (cardinal tetras and discus) in the upcoming festival, which is one of the biggest events of the year here in Barcelos and entirely dedicated to the trade in aquarium fishes. Booming music coming from the boats docked nearby and frenzied activity from the town center left no doubt that this city was in full pre-festival mode.

FESTPOB, the acronym I saw emblazoned on flags and many vibrantly colored shirts, stands for Festival do Peixe Ornamental Barcelos—Ornamental Fish Festival Barcelos. The bit of foreknowledge I had about this event before arriving in Barcelos couldn’t possibly have prepared me for the sheer scale and magnitude of the festival itself. Every street corner is adorned with a team’s colors, with boats arriving every hour ferrying people from the surrounding towns specifically for the festival. Clearly, ornamental fishes mean a lot more to this city and region than just a hobby. The aquarium fish trade here is so significant that it has become a part of the culture, something to celebrate and take pride in. And it’s something that this municipality has been coming together to commemorate for decades.

It was not the growing anticipation for the coming festival, however, nor the tropical charm of the city itself that I most looked forward to, but the activities of the following day when we would be visiting two aquarium fish “transfer stations” in the area. Barcelos is the single biggest hub for the collection and transit of aquarium fishes on the Rio Negro. Once a transfer point in the booming (and bloody) trade in rubber from the Amazon basin, the city is strategically situated at the confluence of several important ornamental fishing grounds upriver and has relatively easy access to Manaus via ferryboat almost year round.

Checking Out the Transfer Stations

During the peak years of the fishery, several large-scale transfer stations for tropical fish operated in Barcelos. A large red-and-white structure a bit upriver from where we were docked once housed the transfer facility for Turky’s, a now-defunct fish exporter based in Manaus. These stations operate like middlemen or brokers—fishes are purchased by the thousands from piabeiros (aquarium fish collectors) and consolidated, housed, and then sold and sent off to exporters in Manaus. The trevisos (transfer station agents) who operate these facilities also act as critical links between exporter and collector. Through semi-regular communication with the exporters—their customers—these agents are relatively well apprised of current market value and demand for each of the scores of fish species collected in the region.

These stations represent an obscure and often overlooked part of the global supply chain for tropical fishes sourced from the wild. These middlemen or consolidators are often a necessity in undeveloped areas of the world where fishes are collected far afield from an international airport. Unfortunately, transfer stations can easily become the weakest links in the chain, places where suboptimal conditions and the stress of a long time in transit take a heavy toll on fishes making their way to distributors, retailers, and home aquariums worldwide. I had been warned to keep my expectations low, but after a short trip across the river to reach the first station on a small island opposite the main docks of Barcelos, I was confronted with some cringe-worthy scenes.

The First Station

The first station consisted primarily of a small boat drawn up on the bank, stacked full with dozens, if not hundreds, of caÇapas—the shallow plastic tubs used to hold and transport tropical fishes here. More were stacked up on shore, and in the shallows several net pens were set up for holding larger numbers of tropicals. As we climbed onto the shore, first to greet us were upwards of 100 freshwater stingrays in a net pen. They were Potamotrygon cf. hystrix, or “cururu” rays as they are known locally. This Rio Negro native is one of the smaller-growing freshwater rays and therefore suitable only for appropriately large home aquariums.

As we approached the small boat housing the bulk of the caÇapas, dozens of other fish species awaiting transit downriver to Manaus were visible, including, of course, the cornerstone species of the Rio Negro fishery—the cardinal tetra. Fishes arrive at these transfer stations in one of two ways. The first, and most common, is for fishermen and women from areas farther upstream to bring them directly to Barcelos by boat. The other option is for transfer station agents themselves to visit some of the outlying fishing communities and purchase the fishes directly. The trevisos at the transfer stations then inspect and sort the fishes before adding them to their existing inventory.

Fishermen are paid based on the quantities and species they provide and are given cash, supplies (like fuel), or occasionally credit with which they can purchase essentials. Once in the custody of the transfer station, these recently collected fishes unfortunately do not find themselves in the best of circumstances to recover from the stress of capture and to prepare for the long journey to Manaus and onward.

From the handling practices I witnessed it was clear that the people operating the transfer station had very little understanding of basic fish health and care as well as insufficient financial incentive to ensure the tropicals arrived in Manaus in good condition. This is a pervasive problem in supply chains like this one, in which certain crucial links like these stations are disconnected from the fate of the fishes they send downriver to be exported. From their (understandable) perspective, they have done their job if the majority of their fishes reach Manaus alive. As most seasoned aquarists know, however, fishes that are alive but stressed due to poor care or rough handling have a greatly compromised ability to resist disease and survive the additional stresses of export. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges facing this economically and environmentally important fishery—fish health and handling practices. Specifically, as was made very clear by the scene before me, the bottleneck is in Barcelos.

Fish Health and Handling Changes

Historically, wild fishes from the Rio Negro, especially cardinal tetras, have had a reputation for being delicate or difficult to keep. As a result, importers, retailers, and hobbyists have tended to avoid them or seek out aquacultured alternatives when available. This reputation is certainly misleading, as those of us on the expedition witnessed cardinals and other ornamentals withstand huge temperature and pH fluctuations, incredibly low levels of dissolved oxygen, high ammonia, and lack of food during a typical journey from capture to arrival in Manaus. Clearly, these little tetras are much tougher than most give them credit for.

It is instead the cumulative effects of stressors throughout the entire supply chain—from river to retailer—that are responsible for most of the health issues and mortality of fishes from this region. And the single most stressful step for these fishes—the point at which a fish’s condition and health is most likely to take a turn for the worse—is while it is awaiting transit in Barcelos. Fieldwork undertaken by Project Piaba long ago identified this as a critical point for Rio Negro fishes bound for export. And fortunately for this imperiled fishery and all who depend on it for their livelihoods, there is a solution. In conjunction with the Brazilian Ministry of Fisheries, Project Piaba has been helping to develop guidelines for best handling practices for fish collectors, transfer stations, and exporters. Distribution of these simple and straightforward guidelines, combined with a program of community-based education and training, will go a long way toward improving fish health and reducing mortality during all stages of the supply chain.

The Second Station

 As we made our way to the second transfer station, it was clear these improvements cannot come a moment too soon. The station itself was larger in scale than the first we visited and was situated in and around a decrepit and heavily listing (if not actually sinking) barge. Inside their holding tubs, the fishes here were clearly stressed—lack of cover, overcrowding, and housing of incompatible species together were among the more obvious problems encountered. Later analyses of water and fish samples would prove that water quality, specifically toxic levels of ammonia/ammonium, was the primary stressor and the single factor most likely to determine long-term survivability for the fishes. Once again, this is far from an insurmountable challenge, but it will take education and a willingness to adapt in order for any positive changes to take hold here. And if even one of these major stressors could be eliminated or reduced at the transfer stations, that elimination would likely result in exponential improvements to fish health and survivability further along the chain. Put simply, better survivability of fishes from the region will encourage both home aquarists and importers to seek out Rio Negro livestock, not only benefiting everyone in the supply chain, but also having an enormous impact on protecting the incredibly diverse forests and aquatic habitat here.

As discussed in the first installment of my report on collecting in the Rio Negro (TFH July 2014), a viable aquarium fishery in this region gives many of its inhabitants a powerful financial incentive to avoid other destructive trades like logging or intensive agriculture while encouraging a sort of environmental protectionism whereby those involved in the fishery have a vested interest in keeping their fishing grounds (and the surrounding forests) pristine.

A Long Road Ahead

As we headed back across the river to our boat, the mood was somber, contemplative. It was clear we had just witnessed some substantial challenges that will need to be addressed head-on if this fishery is to remain viable. It was not those challenges, daunting though they may be, that occupied my thoughts at the moment, but rather the many passionate discussions that had been a daily occurrence aboard our boat about how best to solve them. The talented group of specialists brought together under the auspices of Project Piaba—veterinarians, importers, retailers, public aquarists, and researchers—were growing more energized by the day, as was my confidence in our ability to help foster and preserve this fishery in the face of an uncertain future.

All agreed that we had a lot of work ahead of us—and months after the trip, the same is still true. But progress continues to be made day by day, and the information gathered and groundwork laid on this expedition has proved invaluable to the efforts of the Piaba team in pursuing its goals. The bottleneck in Barcelos remains a top priority, but one that can and will be solved.

In the next (and final) installment, I’ll discuss the final leg of the journey for tropical fishes in the region—while awaiting export in Manaus. During both the first and last days of the trip I spent time with several exporters in the capital city of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, viewing their facilities and discussing trends in the trade, new developments, and the exporters’ perspective on the substantial threats faced by the Rio Negro fishery.