Hope Along the Rio Negro Part 3: The Joy of Wet Nets

Author: Randy Carey

In the third installment of a series detailing his journey of discovery, the author describes the thrill of collecting aquatic jewels along the Rio Negro.

The Trip so Far

I came to Brazil with the anticipation of collecting a sampling of the fishes that fill the Amazon: tetras, cichlids, and catfishes. But the first fish I actually saw in Brazil were barbs and loaches, species indigenous to Southeast Asia.

Aside from a few small flights out of Miami, the commercial airlines offered no direct flights to Manaus. One must fly to destinations like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, and from there catch a Brazilian flight into the rainforest. The demand for direct flights to these ocean-side metropolises comes from tourists and business travelers. The rainforest doesn’t receive the same amount of appreciation—at least not as a destination.

It was at the Sao Paulo airport where I was welcomed to South America with an aquarium display of barbs and loaches. This airport was my introduction to Brazil, within the borders of which lay roughly two-thirds of the Amazon. As one of the few gateways into the rainforest, this airport could be displaying a sampling of the biodiversity held by this species-rich country. But the airport’s aquarium displays bread-and-butter species native to Asia and artificial strains raised on fish farms. Perhaps this is simply a missed opportunity, but perhaps it reflects something deeper. How well do the Brazilian people and government outside of the rainforest—over 90 percent of the country’s population—understand and value the Amazon’s natural resources? Do they appreciate their tropical treasures as an aquarist does?

The Beautiful Rainforest

The rainforest commands an aquarist’s attention as does an attractive woman. One adores her from a distance and contemplates how he can meet her. If and when he does, the moment is bigger than life. An aquarist never forgets his first journey into the rainforest; he remembers his first fish as he does his first kiss.

Despite the fact that most of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil, for the last decade this country draws only a few aquarists to its rivers. Due to the harsh restrictions of Brazil’s biopiracy laws, most aquarists now go to Peru or other countries for their collecting experiences.

Yellow Flags

The night before I left home I spoke with my friend Paul Turley, who has experience collecting in Peru. Advising me as what to bring, he began to talk about nets and fishboxes. I stopped him. I knew that entering the country with these things would raise a yellow flag. Brazil does not allow foreigners to collect biological specimens except as part of an authorized project. Attempts to leave the country with any wild-caught creature, dead or alive, is punished as a serious crime. The expedition was under the supervision of Project Piaba, and all collected fish would stay with the project, so we were legitimate. But why raise the chance of interrogations? I would not be bringing nets or any personal collecting gear. Due to her history and government, Brazil is not the same as Peru.

Diverse Habitats, Thousands of Fishes

When we were just a few hours south of Barcelos we came upon a white sand dune that barely emerged from the river. The crew grounded the boat on the deep side with the intention of turning this flat stretch into an afternoon soccer field. We waded from the boat to the dune and then crossed to the other side where the submerged shelf was very shallow.

As we waded out we kept reminding each other to shuffle our feet. The sandy bottom is an ideal habitat for freshwater sting rays. One could wander 50 to 100 yards out from shore and still keep his knees dry. The ripples of white sand under the shallow amber water cast a beautiful sight. This was a bizarre habitat, and probably a temporary one given the persistently rising waters.

Seining Nets

The best technique for sampling such a wide and shallow habitat is the seining net. Eileen was standing on the deep side of the net, and still the water barely covered her ankles. Conventional wisdom raised our skepticism as we watched the initial dredging. But the wetted nets did not stretch out empty. Several small silvery tetras with a dash of yellow flopped about. Another pull of the net yielded a pike characin, what appeared to be of the genus Boulengerella.

Every habitat needs to be explored to really know what lives within it. Discovery—the discovery of habitats and the discovery of species within them—is a driving thrill of being there. One finds a level of appreciation that can be experienced only through the discovering probe of wet nets.

The Diverse Rio Negro

There is no one Rio Negro habitat. Because we were collecting on foot, our exploration was limited to the shallower habitats, but even within this limitation the habitats varied considerably. On the sides of the expansive Rio Negro lie rivers, streams, flooded plains, and isolated pools. These are comprised by open waters, rapids, sandy bottoms, fallen trees, leafy banks, grassy bottoms, isolated pools, floating meadows, and even blackwater waterfalls.

Over 1000 species of Rio Negro fishes are entrenched within these diverse habitats. From one perspective, why would anyone care what small species lives along some isolated river bank? Why would anyone care that one-foot-wide steams angle through the rainforest? Because we keep fish in personal aquaria, we are aware of these tiny fishes and their habits. And we care.

Living Through Stories

Our first-hand keeping of tropical fishes compels us to learn more about them and their habitats. So aquarists study books with pictures and descriptions of topical species that most others have never even heard about. We are fascinated by stories of those who have explored these native waters, and from these stories we envision what the habitats are like.

One collecting story that had painted my picture of a South American habitat was in an issue of this magazine many years ago. The author describes the setting in which he unexpectedly stumbled upon Poecilocharax weitzmani, the black darter tetra. Perhaps I remember the account because this color-intense characin is my favorite species. An important part of the story involves the habitat, and I formed a mental picture as to what it must have looked like.

The author and his companion were looking for new species. They had ventured up a small blackwater stream. One man was tired and elected to take his mid-day siesta, but the author had eyed a segment of the stream filled with vegetation and fallen trees. He wondered what species might be living within that entanglement. Determined to find out, this adventurer set up a seining net downstream and applied a small amount of a drug just upstream. Within minutes half-conscious fish began to hit the net.

The man saw what he thought was a small and colorful butterfly struggling at the surface. When he tried to help it out of the water, it did not fly away, it swam away! Excited that he had discovered a new and colorful species he awoke his friend and asked for help to collect specimens.

Stories like this are intriguing because they involve uncommon and desirable species, paint a picture of the habitat, and describe moments of discovery. An aquarist reads them to vicariously live these moments.

Night Fishing

Night fishing is a very interesting experience and can be quite fruitful. In retrospect, I wonder why we didn’t do more of it.

When the river grows dark, most of the fish slow to a stupor. Conditioned to the gradual illumination that comes with dawn, the fish do not awaken suddenly. Introduce a sudden beam of light into the water and the collector can identify outlines of resting fish and move close without startling them. Were this daylight, the fish would quickly scurry away, but with a spotlight abruptly penetrating at night time, a dipnet often returns to the surface with its target.

This unexpected beam of light works well in spotting wildlife above the water as well. Most evenings the crew would venture into side channels for such night observations. A designated crew member sat in the front of the canoe, armed with an intense spotlight powered by what seemed to be a car battery. He would slowly scan the trees and river banks with the intense beam, carefully trying to identify the subtle glowing of eyes. When the scout recognized something promising, he would gesture to his partner in back who would quietly motor us toward the sighting. Like the fish at night, often the land creatures sleepily remained in place, allowing us to admire them up close.

In Search of the Emerald Tree Boa

After one night’s expeditions, the crew of the third and final returning canoe reported a sighting that excited Captain Mo. They had seen an emerald tree boa. Immediately our leader began giving instructions to the crew members who started to return the canoes to their castoff positions. When he caught his breath he shared his enthusiasm with us in English. “The emerald tree boa is the most beautiful snake in all of Brazil. We spot one maybe only twice a year. We are going back out for it.” Even though we were near the Rio Negro’s midnight hour with a morning trip scheduled for 6 a.m., many of us elected to follow in the captain’s enthusiasm instead of welcomed sleep.

Ten minutes later the canoes slowed to a coast as the scouts queried the trees with their spotlights. A crew member shouted suddenly and both beams converged. We had seen other tree snakes previously that night, but none as grand or as colorful as this shiny green, yellow, and white boa wrapped in the branches. We gazed with reverence as Mo described this beauty.

But the captain was not satisfied just to observe from a distance. He wanted to handle it so we could witness its stateliness up close. With a long pole a crew member tried to shake the boa loose, but the disturbance prompted it to climb higher. Another crew member climbed up the tree, stepped on the boa’s branch, and began jolting it up and down in rhythm to his Portuguese cadence. No avail.

Mo was determined, so he did what any determined man would do. All the “paying customers” filled one canoe which backed away from the site. On the bank one crewman held a spotlight as Mo began swinging his ax. Twenty minutes seems like a long time when one is closer to sunrise than sunset, but with a few crackling sounds the tree quickly fell into the water. The startled boa released from the floating tree and began swimming to shore, but the crew in the other canoe plucked it from the water before it could escape. Mo had captured his prize.

We returned to the boat to view and photograph this beauty up close. Mo woke Choa and others to show off the beautiful reptile. He may have felled a tree to capture this snake, but he did so out of his appreciation for nature and with hope that we would catch his infectious enthusiasm. With the reverence this creature deserves, Mo returned to the site where he collected the emerald tree boa and released it.

Project Piaba

While the determined captain was swinging his ax, many of us commented on the irony. Just hours earlier the expedition listened to Dr. Labbish Chao as he presented an overview of Project Piaba and its work. The project’s slogan is “buy a fish, save a tree.”

The scope of work conducted by Project Piaba is broad and touches on many issues—political, social, and economic—it’s not just about ecology. The issues and work are too big and too complex to be explained with any one sentence, yet “buy a fish, save a tree” bears that initial single point aquarists ought to remember: The purchase of wild-caught fish streams money back to the inhabitants of the rainforest, and this income encourages them to preserve the rainforest.

This equation works as long as the fish can be collected without damaging the habitats, without over-harvesting the species, and with financial incentives that encourage the fishermen to remain in this profession instead of practicing something destructive. These issues and more span the focus of Project Piaba as it works along the Rio Negro. The role of aquarists is to buy the wild-caught fish that rewards the preservation of river habitats. Meanwhile, the role of the project is to make sure that buying them will do just that.

The Politics of Piaba

Project Piaba’s role is an uphill struggle. It requires lobbying various political bodies, researching the river and its biology, dialoging within the fish-collecting industry at all levels, and communicating with and training the local fishermen. In reality, this role is bigger than Project Piaba, and its responsibility extends beyond any one organization. It certainly is bigger than any one person.

In that evening’s presentation to the expedition, Dr. Chao conceded that he could not succeed in all he had originally set out to accomplish. “Barcelos was not to be the same as before we started our project. I failed to do what I’d like to do,” he lamented. None of us believed that Project Piaba had failed. Today, many fishermen of Barcelos collect off-season unemployment, handling techniques have improved, the cardinal tetra population has been verified as renewable, and the fishermen are included in fisheries dialog. But perhaps the professor’s visions do surpass any one man’s ability. He has suggested many programs and ideas to the officials of Barcelos, but they wait for him to implement those. Even if Project Piaba were better funded, it could not do it all.

Getting Involved

The key, of course, is for those who live in Barcelos and along the Rio Negro to seize the opportunities and become proactive. But even some of the graduate students in Manaus have shown indifference. Several were scheduled to join the expedition and conduct research along the way, but all but one backed out at the last minute.

As with the aquarium at the Sao Paulo airport, is this a missed opportunity or a telling attitude? How can Project Piaba raise appreciation for the “buy a fish, save a tree” equation and coax the people along the Rio Negro to be more proactive?

Finding Poecilocharax weitzmani

Our three canoes glide up a small river. Chao collects a sample of the intensely black water, and his meter declares a very acidic 3.9 pH. During a sudden but short downpour we can feel the dramatic temperature difference between the cold rain and the sun-baked river water, which registers at 82°F. These are cardinal tetra waters. What freshwater aquarist could not appreciate this experience?

The crew lands the expedition just below some rapids. It is midday and we have three hours to relax or explore. A few take nets to the river in search of cardinals. Some will repeatedly raft down the rapids. I start scouting this cardinal tetra river by walking some foot trails with camera in hand.

The Stream

Eventually I encounter a narrow stream perpendicularly feeding into the river. This small water flow gently cascades down a stone gully, forming a peculiar sight that makes a good subject for my camera. This flow is fed by some hidden source about 40 yards up, and my curiosity leads me away from the river and up the flow to see what lies around the bend.

As I reach the top and look around the corner, I find the stream once more bending out of sight just yards upstream. So I wander a bit further and again can see only so far ahead. This pattern continues with each bend, beckoning me to explore just one more short stretch of unpredictable stream. I must have hiked roughly a quarter mile away from the river and this small stream had narrowed to an average width of about 2 feet.

Then it dawns on me. I no longer needed to scout. I ought to sample the waters. It was early in the expedition and this would be my first hands-on collecting attempt. All I could scavenge for this personal hike was a 10-inch dipnet and a few plastic bags, so these would have to do.

Nothing But Net

The net repeatedly came up empty, so I kept moving upstream. I approached one of the several brush dams that segmented this narrow stream. Water trickled through the dam into a round and deep hollow. My long-handle net probed the sides of this blackwater pool, but it never could reach the bottom.

Amazon Kiss

On perhaps my fifth run of the net I pulled up a fish, a tiny specimen just under an inch long. My initial reaction was to release it, but then I realized that size did not matter. I ought to inspect what species I found in this unlikely pool. Peering into the bag, my eyes widened. This was Poecilocharax weitzmani, the black darter tetra! As I began to pull out males and females of the black darter, a chill ran through me. I am having my first “kiss” with the Amazon, and of the hundreds of species in her waters, she is responding with my favorite!

My first-hand experience of collecting this species parallels key points of the collection story I mentioned earlier. I was working a narrow blackwater stream that fed into cardinal tetra waters. (The other version, told 20 years after it happened, recalled the downstream river as neon tetra territory.) My specimens were found near a thick brush-filled dam. I began to wonder if the stream and brush of the collecting story I had read might have been much like the habitat of my new memories and photographs. Having experienced such strong parallels in detail, I attained a new appreciation for the collecting stories of the past.

Memories and Hope Live On

Some have asked why I chose to collect in Brazil knowing that I could not bring back anything I netted. Many aquarists go on collecting trips with the main goal of bringing back fish. This is desirable, but if it is the main reason to go it is a poor one. Fish eventually die while memories live on. Rare species can be imported more cheaply than they are collected. When one visits the rainforest, the most important things he returns with is not the fish, but the experiences, the memories, and the appreciation that comes from wet nets.

But as Project Piaba realizes, hope along the Rio Negro depends upon more than cultivating appreciation from aquarists. The people along the river must engage in commerce and programs that reward protection of the rainforest. The students in Manaus must not underestimate their role in helping Brazil understand the dynamics and importance of its rainforest. And the people of Brazil should value their greatest natural resources—not just in defending against biopiracy, but also in promoting and celebrating its biodiversity. A display of Amazonian fishes at the Sao Paulo airport would be an encouraging sign.