Therapaima is the Terminator of the animal kingdom, but it also has one serious drawback: it is good to eat. Locally called pirarucu, it is also called “Amazon’s cod,” by the quality of its firm white flesh and minimal bones. Fish is an important source of food for the local community, but is also a popular delicacy in some of Brazil’s major cities.
Excessive fishing reduced the population, and in the 1990s action was taken to ban arapaima fishing. However, illegal fishing continues, making the species extinct from parts of the Amazon. But with two decades of work from conservationists and the local community, that is no longer the case.
What’s more, therapaima has not disappeared from the plate. In fact, consumption is more important than conservative forms, meaning that Brazilians can have fish and eat it.
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Today, fishing for the arapaima is banned in Brazil except within the scope of community management agreements, explains João Campos-Silva, Brazilian ecologist. Campos-Silva is part of the Institutio Juruá, a multi-stakeholder organization working with communities and fisheries on infrastructure projects for sustainable agriculture and eventually reviving the species.
Arapaima spend the rainy season searching for flooded forests where they reproduce, returning to the swamp when the water level drops. Focusing on the Juruá River and its environs in the Amazonas region of northern Brazil, a project implemented by the Institutio Juruá over the past decade has resulted in an annual census and a non-annual harvest quota of 30%.
Local communities guard the lake gates throughout the year to prevent illegal fishing from coming from outside the protected area. Harvesting is only allowed between August and November, and any fish less than 1.55 meters (5 feet 1 inch) long will be returned.
Francisco das Chagas Melo de Araújo, also known as Seu Preto, was a community leader from Xibauazinho, a community in the state of Amazonas and was one of the first to start the project. He explained that “before the management of the arapaima … we had no right to take care of these lakes. Commercial fishermen used to do traditional fishing, where (they) used to harvest as much as they could.”
After 11 years in office, he says there are more than 4,000 lakes in the community lake.
Campos-Silva research on the lakes around the Juruá River during the same period found that the arapaima population was more than four times that. As the population increased, the arapaima migrated to Lai Lake, expanding its horizons. He estimates that there are currently about 330,000 arapaima buildings inhabiting the lake, 1,358 of the 35 protected areas, with more than 400 communities involved in their management.
He said the income from community fishing was “creating clear social benefits”, funding schools and improving infrastructure, social security and health care, as well as promoting gender equality.
Raimunda Pires de Araújo, daughter of Seu Preto, said she had no income before the management program. She is now in charge of cooking and cleaning fish, and earning money. “Opportunities like this increase our independence in the fight for a better life,” she said.
“Our work is nationally and internationally recognized, raising the profile and respect of the community and other organizations,” said her father. “We now have the opportunity to help other communities strengthen themselves.”
Is his message to fishermen illegal? “Arrange.” Seu Preto says they should join a legal fishing program and start a sustainable harvest. “The greatest pride you can have is (catching a fish) and no one has the right to seize it.”
Campos-Silva hopes the positive feedback loop created by the project will encourage more community involvement and ultimately help preserve Amazon wildlife.
“We are facing a major global spine decline,” he said. “Here we have a very positive case, which clearly shows that we can pull together, by divers conservatism and the needs of society.”
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