Fishing with the Piabeiros of Brazil's Rio Negro
Author: Mike Tuccinardi
An experienced ornamental fish importer describes his experiences collecting with three generations of aquarium-fish collectors during his trip to the Brazilian Amazon.
My Expedition to the Rio Negro
In late January of this year, I was fortunate enough to join an expedition to the Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon to witness firsthand the important ornamental fishery that exists there. Over the course of two weeks, we traced the supply chain upstream to its source—the people who actually collect aquarium fish in outlying villages on the river. Aside from being a fish geek’s dream, it provided a fascinating look at the economic importance of this fishery on the region and the conservation outcomes associated with this well-documented, sustainable trade.
In this first installment of my account of the trip, we’ll look at the very first link in the supply chain as we spend the day fishing for aquarium fish with the villagers of Daracua. From a hobbyist’s or even an industry member’s perspective, this was a rare glimpse far behind the scenes to not only see where our aquarium fish come from, but also to share the stories of the fishermen and women who specialize in the collection of ornamental fish.
Sailing the Dorinha
It was another quiet Amazonian sunrise over the placid, polished-glass waters of the Rio Negro. From my vantage point on the top deck of our boat, the Dorinha, I watched the tiny village of Daracua begin to stir in a seemingly timeless morning ritual. Smoke from cooking fires drifted lazily upward, and I started to see a handful of villagers emerging to begin the morning routine. It was a snapshot of life on the banks of the river probably not all that different from what it would have looked like long ago. One thing did set the scene before me apart, however, and that was what brought me to this remote stretch of the upper Rio Negro—the fact that the people of Daracua are primarily piabeiros, fishers of aquarium fish, and they make their living from the colorful tropical fish that fill my and countless others’ home aquariums.
I watched, fascinated, as several children from the village made their way to the water’s edge and then waded right over to a group of net pens used to hold cardinal tetras. They inspected them carefully, checking the wooden supports and scrubbing off any parts of the mesh netting that may have become clogged in the night. More villagers soon followed, heading out to their respective holding areas, working diligently to check and reposition the pens if need be while parrots shrieked in the trees overhead. River dolphins, or botos, surfaced not far from the pens, probably accustomed to scraps or the occasional dead fish.
This is the first thing these villagers do each morning—these are their daily chores, like tending to the crops in a farming village. The activity is akin to feeding the chickens or walking the rice fields each morning. And like almost all who rely directly on agriculture or other natural resources for their livelihoods, great care is taken to safeguard this precious source of income.
Purpose for the Trip
I had come to the Rio Negro specifically for this purpose, to document and better understand how fish from this region make their way from the blackwater streams and pools into the tanks of exporters far downstream, to wholesale facilities like the one where I work, and then to retailers and home aquariums worldwide.
Longtime readers of Tropical Fish Hobbyist might recall Project Piaba, an initiative launched in the early 1990s to research and document the unique ornamental fishery of the Rio Negro. Over the last several years, this project has quietly been gathering steam once more under the leadership of Scott Dowd of the New England Aquarium, with a renewed focus on preserving and promoting this important fishery.
This entire trip had been coordinated by Scott and Project Piaba and included a number of current board members like myself and other Piaba-affiliated individuals. I’ll delve into our goals and priorities for this trip in a later article, but for now, suffice it to say that one of the major objectives of our journey was to spend time with one of the communities dependent on the collection of ornamental fish and observe them at work.
These ornamental fisheries exist in a number of developing countries throughout the tropics: in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and, of course, South America. More importantly, they often provide a significant source of income to people living in these biodiversity hotspots, people who might otherwise turn to more destructive livelihoods such as slash-and-burn agriculture.
The fishery on the Rio Negro is one of the oldest and most studied ornamental fisheries on the planet, and after spending almost 10 days on the river following the supply chain—from exporters in Manaus to holding stations in Barcelos—I had finally arrived at the source to spend the day fishing with the piabeiros of Daracua.
After a breakfast aboard the Dorinha (joined by several of the piabeiros’ families), we boarded our canoes and set out for the igarapÉ (small forest stream) of Daracua. The ride out took about 20 minutes, mostly using the outboard but paddling as we got in among the stands of submerged trees. As we entered the fishing grounds, I noticed Dora, who seemed to be the most experienced spotter, paddling out ahead and watching closely for the signs that would indicate a good habitat for the fish they were after. We passed an area that they said was good for catfish collecting, but we kept moving as cardinal tetras seemed to be first priority.
After some quiet searching and navigating the little channels of the igarapÉ, Dora and Francisco stopped at what appeared to be a suitable spot to collect. Exiting the boat and wading into the waist-high water, they rapidly splashed the surface of the water and watched intently. Interestingly, small fish like tetras are conditioned to respond to disturbances at the surface of the water. Apparently, during the low-water season, when food becomes scarce, falling fruit from the trees and insects hitting the water’s surface make up a substantial part of these fishes’ diets. After splashing the water to attract the fish, the piabeiros scanned the tannin-stained water to see if a sufficient number of fish approached. At this site, we didn’t see many tetras, so we moved on.
The vegetation got denser and the streams shallower as we moved deeper into the igarapÉ until we reached a second spot, where a couple of the piabeiros got out of the canoes again and started splashing and waiting in the dark water. At this site, some success, as they fetched large wooden-framed nets called rapichÉ and began the process of collecting the fish.
Once the piabeiros’ splashing draws in a large enough school, they dip the rapichÉ into the water and then use a canoe paddle to skillfully herd the tetras into the net. From there, they are lifted out of the water and scooped (none-too-gently) into a woven basket lined with plastic in the canoe.
The water was still relatively high for that time of year, which meant the fish were able to spread out more and thus were more difficult to collect. During the low-water season, it is not uncommon to be able to collect hundreds or even thousands of tetras with each scoop of the rapichÉ. That day, we spent a good 20 or 30 minutes collecting in different shallow-water areas, sometimes having to dump a rapichÉ-full of fish when the cardinals were outnumbered by various bycatch fish.
Some of the tetras we encountered in the nets were beautiful fish that are valued in the trade, like the sailfin tetra (Crenuchus spilurus), an abundance of pencilfish (Nannostomus sp.), Weitzman’s tetra (Poecilocharax weitzmani), and more. The fact that, as an importer, I understood the value of these fish, whereas the piabeiros ignored them to focus on collecting only cardinals, underscored some of the communication gaps that exist in the ornamental trade, especially when dealing with wild collection. It was encouraging, however, to see how selective the piabeiros were in their collecting methods—there was remarkably little wasted effort and almost all the unwanted catch was returned to the river unharmed.
After a reasonably successful haul of cardinal tetras, we began heading back toward the village but then stopped to collect bodos, or catfish, along the way. It was fascinating to witness how the piabeiros instantly changed gears and used a completely different method to fish for catfish. Each of them donned a snorkeling mask and, searching out deeper, sunlit channels away from the riverbanks, dove down in turns, visually scanning the low-visibility waters for signs of catfish. I was very curious to see how they were able to find cryptic bottom dwellers by sight alone and quickly realized that this was not the case at all when Francisco emerged with a thick, submerged log in tow.
He was in about chest-deep water and went to work inspecting the crevices on this log for his target, which turned out to be the beautiful jaguar catfish (Liosomadoras oncinus). With each turn of the log, he seemed to find another specimen of this driftwood-dwelling catfish, which he teased out with his hands or, in several instances, a pair of needle-nose pliers (which he never used on the fish directly, just to pry at the wood). Catfish after catfish were tossed into the plastic-lined baskets they use to store fish on the canoes, and then Francisco dove back down and replaced the log where he had found it.
This intrigued me, so I asked why he put the log back in the same place rather than just dropping it from where he stood. Apparently this is mandated by Brazilian law, but beyond that, the piabeiros recognize the importance of these natural structures to the fish they collect. Literally translated, I was told that these logs were the fishes’ houses, and they need to put them back so more fish would find the house later. This response affirmed the piabeiros’ strong concern for these fishes’ environment, rooted in a desire to ensure the continued success of their local fishing grounds.
A few more large pieces of driftwood were brought to the surface and closely inspected for jaguar catfish. I noticed there were some plecos (Peckoltia sp.) and other species of woodcats on these, but these fish were ignored in favor of the jaguar catfish. I was surprised to see that these fish, which clearly had value in the ornamental trade, were not collected also, but once again, the piabeiros explained that they had been advised by the traveling representatives of the middlemen in the town of Barcelos downriver (the major transfer point for ornamental fish from the Negro) that they needed jaguar catfish right now, not plecos or other catfish species.
That this kind of communications infrastructure is able to exist in a place where most news still travels by boat was impressive, and reinforced the fact that this low-volume, high-value fishery operates well within the threshold of being not only sustainable, but also beneficial to the region economically and ecologically.
During this time, Dora also began searching for freshwater stingrays, which is done (amazingly) based solely on visual spotting from above. When one is spotted, they use the rounded edge of the rapichÉ to scoop the ray out from the sandy substrate and up into the canoe. They demonstrated this collection method with a couple of small specimens, but they were released, as the rays were apparently not in demand by the exporters at that moment.
Exploring the IgarapÉ
Before our return journey to the village, we came upon a small clearing that the piabeiros use as a temporary campsite to assess their catch and rest. Before we arrived at the clearing, some of the piabeiros had encountered and killed a small deer, which they were cleaning and preparing to cook. It was extremely impressive to watch how skillfully they turned some sticks into not only a cooking fire and impromptu grill, but also a table set among two trees where our lunch was laid out for us. We all ate in the small clearing at the river’s edge as some of the kids from the village swam around the canoes.
An Abundance of Fish
Having achieved our goal of watching the collection of aquarium fish firsthand, we had some free time to explore the waters of the igarapÉ on our own. In this particular spot by the clearing, the water was relatively clear and the tropical sun streaming in through the canopy made for some of the best visibility I’d experienced on the trip so far. The water was shallow, less than 3 feet (1 meter) in most places, and the bottom was thoroughly covered with leaf litter. The sheer density of fish there was incredible—it seemed as if the closer you looked at any given spot, the more fish became visible.
Close to the water’s edge among the leaf litter and submerged roots, I found hundreds of checkerboard cichlids (Dicrossus filamentosus), small pairs and groups of Apistogramma sp., dwarf pike cichlids (Crenicichla notophthalmus), dozens of species of tetras, including schools of cardinals and rummynose, and more. Small groups of Bryconops sp., easily the boldest fish in the Rio Negro, darted about in front of my mask until I had to shoo them away like underwater flies.
Moving out a bit further, I started to see some cichlid species, including juvenile festivum (Mesonauta sp.), threadfin acara (Acarichthys heckelii), Laetacara sp., and a few others. Diving down below the surface toward a fully submerged fallen tree, I spent an awestruck moment watching a pair of massive marbled pike cichlids (Crenicichla marmorata) surrounded by an enormous swarm of inch-long babies. They spotted me and retreated into the shadows just as a pair of spotted severums (Heros notatus) cruised by. It was a stunning scene, one that really drove home the almost unbelievable diversity of this habitat and the importance of preserving it for future generations of both piabeiros and passionate aquarists to enjoy.
The Amazing IgarapÉ
Perhaps the biggest revelation, and one that came out of casual conversation on the ride back to the village, was that the igarapÉ we just spent the day fishing and exploring has been the site of most of Daracua’s aquarium fish collecting for almost three generations now. The pristine, teeming-with-life waters of these streams has supplied ornamental fish for the trade for decades and yet has remained…well, pristine and teeming with life. Furthermore, this otherwise unremarkable submerged habitat has supported three generations of villagers as they’ve raised families and gone about their daily lives on the banks of the Rio Negro—the third generation being many of the children who rode out with us, helping their parents fish, watching and learning in preparation to take on these duties themselves in a few years.
I realized, especially thinking about the kids who had ridden out with us to the igarapÉ, that “piabeiro” is not merely an occupation—a job—but rather a craft or trade. These men and women rely on a unique set of skills, honed over years and decades and passed down from one generation to the next. Although they never get to see the end result of their work—the excitement of aquarists around the world whose tanks are stocked with the beautiful fish from this region—there is still an appreciation for the work itself and a quiet pride, which I sensed in each piabeiro.
Closing the Loop
As someone with a background as a hobbyist, then a retailer, and now a major wholesaler of tropical fish, my day fishing with the piabeiros of Daracua represented the first time I had ever “closed the loop” and followed the often-elaborate supply chain for aquarium fish to its origin. Spending just one day collecting with them forever changed my perspective on the nature of the trade by reminding me that for each bag of corydoras or wild discus that passes through our facility, there is ultimately a person responsible for collecting those fish at the far end of the supply chain.
I don’t want to romanticize or idealize the role of the piabeiros. It is demanding, hot, exhausting work, and by our standards, they earn very little for it. But it is important to realize that as humans continue to encroach on the last few wild places left on the planet, just having an ornamental fishery like that of the Rio Negro can allow the people on the front lines to make a decent living without resorting to more environmentally impactful activities, like intensive agriculture, mining, or even food fishing. In this case, having seen the results of it firsthand, I am cautiously optimistic that the aquarium hobby can be a clear force for good in a rapidly developing world.
See the full article on TFH Digital http://www.tfhdigital.com/tfh/july_2014#pg77