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The Pride of the Purus River: An Iridescent Income from Ornamental Fish

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....

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.

Lake Ayapua – Annie Cooper
The Author (left) with Felipe and Community Fishermen at a Floating Pen - Felipe Rossoni

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.

Fisherman with Discus Fish - Felipe Rossoni

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.

Cut Branches From the Araça Bush Attract Discus Fish - Felipe Rossoni

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.”

Uixi Village and Fishermen - Felipe Rossoni


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.

Handmade Wooden Canoe, the Most Common Form of Transport - Karl Didier


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.

Unloading Supplies at the Piagacu Institute Floating Research Base - Annie Cooper

“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.”

Gathering the Catch – Felipe Rossoni

Together the local fisherman and Felipe began a project of experimental fishing, testing the best ways to handle and transport the discus fish.  Their research even included checking the regrowth of the araça bush, after its branches are cut to attract the discus.  Their relationship became so good that one of the older fishermen presented Felipe with his harpoon, the very one he had used in the past to kill dozens of manatees.

Felipe’s difficulty was finding a buyer who would pay a fair price for the three managed catches planned under the project: “No one was interested in paying prices that recognized the quality of the selected fish. They just paid low, undifferentiated prices for fish and threw away the immature and poorly marked ones.”

The Fishermen - Felipe Rossoni

Then, thanks to a contact at IBAMA (the Brazilian environmental enforcement agency), Felipe was put in touch with Hudson Crizanto, a businessman from Fortaleza, a city on Brazil’s northeast coast.  He knew that his customers wanted fish that were sustainably sourced and had earned a fair price for fishermen.  Hudson’s company, H&K Ornamental Fish, bought the first catch. For the second catch Hudson came to Uixi with Felipe and me, met the fishermen, and together we watched their work at the floating pens.

Assis Pilots the Boat with Felipe Rossoni (right) and a Technical Assistant - Annie Cooper

Fishing with a triple bottom line: social, environmental, and economic returns

The day after the fish are collected from the pens, Hudson grades each individual fish for quality, while Felipe takes notes to work out how much the fishermen will receive.  Assis and his colleagues watch the process carefully.  Then Hudson calls a meeting and it is agreed that from a total of 271 fish, each fisherman will receive $363, a welcome and substantial addition.  Hudson explains how the fishermen can increase their returns (and his) from their next sale in six months’ time by selecting the best fish and improving their handling and organization. This will ensure that all the fish survive the boat ride to Manaus and flight to his aquaria in Fortaleza.  It is a further incentive to keep up their collaboration with the Piagaçu Institute’s conservation work.

Hudson Crizanto at the Computer Explaining Next Steps - Annie Cooper

“Today I’ll pay you for the fish that died in the night, and a bit for the fish that we let go yesterday that weren’t marketable quality,” says Hudson to the fishermen. “I’ll do this because I know that you can learn from this, and improve: next time your catch will be better and I’ll only pay you for the fish I receive.  You need to be better organized, to value your product, and get on top of all the processes that can be under your control – including taking on Felipe’s monitoring role.  I know you sold discus for less than a dollar in the past, but I’m interested in a business partnership, not exploitation.  This is my philosophy, and the philosophy of my customers.”

Hudson shows the fishermen photos of his aquaria with its pumps, filters and specialist treatments and a video of the first catch of discus after their quarantine: lustrous gold and green and ready for sale to Japan, Singapore, and countries across Europe and North America.  He sells the fish for an average of $75 to wholesalers, though the final price for the most spectacular discus can approach $1,000.  The levels of investment that their fish merit make a strong impression on all the fishermen.

Hudson Crizanto's Aquaria

I asked Assis what he thought of the meeting, and it is something of an eye-opener: “It’s good working with Hudson and Felipe, because for each thing we do, we’re learning more about the fish.  We’ve sold other fish at the cheapest possible prices; this time the difference is that the price is better.  The meeting was great: it’s clear we need to improve, and learn so that we don’t make any more mistakes.  It was lovely to see the photos and video, especially to see the fish from here in Hudson’s aquarium.”

Discus Fish in the Aquaria - Hudson Crizanto

From Uixi the fish begin journeys that take them across the world.  Felipe is working to extend the pilot project to the other lakes and communities in the Piagaçu Purus Reserve.  With the Amazonas State Centre for Conservation Units, he is helping other reserves to learn from this experience.  And Hudson is keen for a new form of certification to be set up to recognize the combined social, economic, and environmental impacts of a social enterprise model, which pays a fair price direct to local fishermen with the assurance of a partnership with a conservation institute.

I wondered what Assis thought of the thousands of miles the Ayapuá fish will travel, and he is visibly proud of his community and the resources they manage. He tells me, “It’s important for the community to know that we have fish of such quality in our area, that they’ll travel from right here to Fortaleza, and from there to who-knows-where in the world.”

These fish do not just generate income for Uixi, Pinheiros and Evaristo.  The fish, and their rainbow glory, have become a source of real pride for the sustainable discus fishermen of the Purus.

Annie Cooper is the Socio-economic Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Brazil.  She has worked on research and programs for rural community organizations in Brazil, the UK, the Middle East, and Central America.

The Author

Annie and Felipe would like to thank:

The Piagaçu Institute and WCS- Brazil are funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.  The Brazilian National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) provided a grant for Felipe’s Masters.  The project currently receives funding from the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute (IDSM) and is supported by the Amazonas State Centre for Conservation Units (CEUC). Biologist, Adrian Barnett reviewed the blog.

Learn more (in Portuguese):

Felipe Rossoni Cardoso, 2008. Ecologia da pesca e biologia reprodutiva do acará-disco (Symphysodon aequifasciatus, Pellegrin 1904) (Perciformes: Cichlidae) na RDS Piagaçu-Purus, Amazônia Central: subsídios para o manejo sustentável de um recurso natural. UFAM / INPA.

Plano de Gestão da Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Piagaçu-Purus. 2010


Discus in depth

There are three species of discus, all in the genus Symphysodon (sim-fi-so-don). All are found only in the Amazon basin: the one in the story is the green discus (S. aequifasciatus), which occurs only on the Solimões river and its tributaries. The two others are Heckel’s Discus (S. discus), which occurs on the lower Rio Negro and the Trombetas river, and one (called either S. tarzoo or S. haraldi) from steams on the middle Rio Negro.

Discus can grow up to 15cm and, in captivity, can live for over 30 years. They can start breeding at the age of 12-15 months years and will form a mated pair to care for their young. They take turns in guarding the eggs and then, once these hatch, the parents do something remarkable – they produce a nutritive slime from their bodies on which the hatchlings feed until they are big enough to swim away and fend for themselves. Discus are one of the very few fishes to do this.

Discus were first scientifically described in 1840. They did not become part of the aquarium trade until the 1930’s, mainly because they are very fussy about water quality. Tropical fish hobbyists love discus; they come in such variety of spectacular patterns. Some of these were specially bred in captivity, others occur naturally. The discus is so variable for two reasons: because fish in each river and stream have very little contact, allowing local variations to evolve, and also because, since the bars and stripes act as camouflage, if individuals in a river have a different appearance, this makes it harder for predators to form an ‘prey image’ of what a discus looks like.

Adrian Barnett

 Amazon Oddities

There are some very strange fish in Amazon waters: not only is there the famous and feared candiru (a small blood-sucking catfish, famous for its ability to detect urine and lodge itself uncomfortably close to its source), wood-eating catfish and pirana relatives that eat only the fins of other fish.  Then there are electric eels, sting-rays and even fresh-water puffer fish. Oddest of all, perhaps, is the tadpole catfish, a tiny bright red animal that lives in-between moist leaves on the forest floor.

Adrian Barnett

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