Jorge Tapioca crouches along the shore of a small lake – a stagnant, isolated inland lagoon, really. It is late October and the Brazilian Amazon finds itself in low water season. Soon rainstorms will pound day and night. Add the runoff that will flow more intensely from the Andes. The water level will rise at lightening speed. For four months, this lake will disappear from everything but maps and memories - merging with its inundated surroundings of what they call the flood forest. If he were to hold his ground, Tapioca might find himself submerged 35 feet (10 meters) under.
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Tapioca’s muscular body gives him the look of a former bantamweight. He waits quietly for a creature that may equal him in size. He waits for the pirarucu, considered by many experts to be endangered, considered by many of the same to be the world’s largest freshwater fish. A scale taken from a captured specimen resembles a fingernail ripped from the hand of Paul Bunyan; its oblong form nearly covers the screen of a Palm Pilot.
Tapioca knows that the encounter is imminent. The pirarucu must come up for air. An adult needs to surface every 15 minutes to gulp oxygen through an organ called a cellular swimming bladder.
Plaptch! A ribbon of silver and red breaks the surface. The pirarucu needs just a split second to take a breath. That’s all Tapioca needs to judge its size, weight and age; maybe even its sex.
Counting on Fisheries Management
A team of aquatic census-takers like Tapioca can make a good accounting of a small lake’s pirarucu population in less than an hour. Leandro Castello, a fish biologist at the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, will stake their results against those of any well-financed ichthyologist. When Castello ran a mark-and-recapture experiment, his team took two weeks to grind out the same results as the locals got in minutes with their traditional eyeball system. The correlation index, for those who understand such things, was 0.99 for the nine test lakes. “Almost perfect,” declared the biologist. “And their system is 200 times faster and 200 times cheaper.”
Castello somewhat sheepishly supervises a team of traditional pirarucu counters, Tapioca included, in Mamirauá. A reserve of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, Mamirauá is managed by a non-profit called – appropriately enough - the Mamirauá Civil Society. Joined with contiguous parks and reserves, Mamirauá helps comprise the largest protected block of rain forest on earth: some 20,000 square miles – larger than the entire nation of Costa Rica.
Mamirauá’s college-educated braintrust prefers to try to work with the reserve’s preexisting human population instead of harassing folks into defending nature. In that spirit, Mamirauá launched in 1999 an innovative fisheries management program that aims to balance the survival of a threatened species with the needs of those who depend on it to supply cash.
The data compiled by Tapioca and Co. are used by the fishers association in São Raimundo do Jarauá to negotiate an annual pirarucu quota with federal officials. A 160-strong village, Jarauá is located within the Mamirauá reserve. Nearly everywhere else in Amazonas state pirarucu fishing is prohibited. But even government officials admit that the ban is ineffective: they have neither the money nor the manpower to enforce it. Fishers just move catches to the black market. “Under management, the fishers take 30%,” said José Maria Batista Damasceno, fishing engineer for the Mamirauá project. “But if they have to go underground, they’ll take 100%, and they won’t bother with the size limits.”
Give fishers a legal outlet for their pirarucu. Partly because it is legal, they get superior prices. The species arguably gets better protection under this system than under a ban. That’s the idea.
Where the prohibition remains in effect, the pirarucu catch continues to dwindle, most observers agree (though its criminal nature turns the industry unsurprisingly difficult to measure). Not surprisingly, the Arapaima gigas, as the pirarucu’s is known scientifically, got on the CITES endangered species list in 1996 and hasn’t left since.
Contrast that with numbers from the Jarauá region. Three hundred adults were counted in 1999. Locals fishers got permission to take one-third of them, yet the number of adults increased to 900 in 2000.
Government officials agree that this program may serve as a model for the intelligent use of increasingly scarce fisheries resources throughout the Amazon and beyond. “The experience of pirarucu management in Mamirauá is working,” said José de Anchieta dos Santos, director of wildlife and fisheries resources in the Brazilian Environmental Institute (IBAMA), a federal agency. “Maybe it can be extended to other species.”
Past Lives: Counting Pirarucu to Death
In case you were wondering, Tapioca didn’t learn his skills to help establish quotas. The ends weren’t always so benevolent.
Christened Jorge de Souza Carvalho, Tapioca earned his nicknamed after the popular starchy staple as a boy: he would always stick close his elders as they prepared their canoes for the next voyage. (Like many riverine natives, Tapioca is known almost exclusively by his informal moniker.) By age eight, he was joining adults on commercial runs in quest of the most valuable species of the northwestern Brazilian Amazon: the tambaqui, a fruit-and-seed-eating 50-70 pounder with human-like molars, and the prized pirarucu.
Tapioca’s parents were caboclos, westernized Amazonians of Indian or mixed white-indigenous descent, and they lived from subsistence fishing and farming. Thirteen years ago, at the age of 24, Tapioca moved from his native village to Jarauá.
Now considered the leading fishing village of the region, Jarauá was a fledgling community when Tapioca moved in. The birth of new communities is not unusual in the Amazon flood forest. The perennial ebb and flow of water can erode apparently stable landmasses. Whole communities may wake up to find that the earth is literally moving out from under their timber houses.
The Amazon contains an estimated 10% of the earth’s biodiversity and 20% of all its freshwater resources. Mamirauá is less noted for its diversity than for something known as endemism – a condition that scientists describe as the restriction of species to a particular area with a prescribed extent. There are lots of animals here, like the white uacari monkey, that aren’t much seen anywhere else – if at all.
To a lay observer, though, the most remarkable thing about the place its simple abundance. Caiman line the shores. (Literally, folks. Caiman are thought to be endangered, but in Mamirauá there are dozens and dozens and dozens of them. No description would do justice the numbers.) Caiman lay immobile and serene, mostly, but less well behaved are the pink dolphins: twenty or so of these class clowns might surround a small boat without warning. They leap in tandem; they leap freestyle; they’re over you. Enough already. Meanwhile, for the more spiritually inclined, deep inside the forest, howler monkeys blast forth their eerie calls.
The sky above often seems blanketed with birds. The cormorant and the great egret lead the charge. Cormorant after cormorant can be seen perched in the half submerged branches of half-submerged fallen trees stick out of the water, perpendicular evidence of erosion. Egrets often prowl the water’s edge, on foot, craning elongated necks at odd angles before snapping up fish with their long beaks. Even the laziest birdwatcher can catch a glimpse of a hoatzin, whose young show a “wing claw,” a prehistoric remnant that allows them to climb like many mammals. With a bit more effort, one might see an osprey, down for the season from New Jersey.
The presence of so many birds offers evidence of their main food source - the plentiful life below the water’s surface. An estimated 295-320 species of fish inhabit the underwater world of Mamirauá. One, the aruanã, is famous for leaping into small boats. While the habit might not seem to favor the natural selection of this species, there is a reason to the madness. With a leaping ability that earned it the nickname “water monkey,” the aruanã can nip insects above the surface. Boating, it seems, is just an occupational hazard of fine dining.
Another species that announces its presence is the pirarucu. The pirarucu might surface “bravo” (angry) or “manso” (tame) or “dobrado” (doubled over): local fishers have a whole vocabulary to describe its various breathing styles. But no matter the style, the pirarucu will always surface. It can survive for as long as 24 hours outside the water but death can be measured in minutes if it isn’t able to come up for that gulp of air. Its gills are basically redundant.
Air breathing gives the adult pirarucu away to its only real enemy - the human. But it also offers the aquatic giant a neat competitive edge. As the oxygen solubility of water varies inversely with temperature, low oxygen levels are common in the Amazon. In the Amazonian flood forest, the normal low oxygen levels are exacerbated by conditions created in torpid lakes in low water season. Some lakes will form pools of bright green algae that seem to say, “Jackson Pollock was here.” Many pirarucu find themselves confined in such places for the duration. Most gill-breathing fish held in such temporary captivity respond by keeping their metabolisms sluggishly low. So the Amazon’s air breathing, oxygen-charged underwater predator can get a jump on smaller, seemingly more agile prey. (Of the 300 or so fish species in the region, it feeds on about 30, with a preference for some kinds of catfish. Not every slowpoke need worry.)
The pirarucu falls under the order osteoglossifomres, among the most primitive and ancient of fish. The order dates to the Jurassic period, or nearly 200 million years back, and still has wide distribution in the southern hemisphere. Perhaps its most remarkable common denominator is a sandpaper-ish bony formation in the mouth usually called a tongue. The pirarucu uses its tongue to crush one or another of those slowpokes. When they get hold of it, Amazon natives are rumored to use it as a grater.
The pirarucu can be found in many parts of the Amazon basin. Its name varies by region, so the guess is that pre-Columbian peoples thought the species important. The Brazilian name comes from the Tupi language and translates roughly as red fish, a bit of a misnomer since only the hind part of its body is truly red – though the red part seems to increase during mating season.
The catch size limit for pirarucu in Brazil is 1.5 meters (5’4”), but an average adult will measure six feet and can easily weigh in at around 200 pounds (90 kilos) or more. Reproductive activity involves pair formation, territorial behavior and nest building. “The nest is 70 centimeters long and 25 deep. It is just a hole,” said Tapioca, who worked as a research assistant for a nest study. The male protects the fry all by himself, drawing offspring into his flat, elongated mouth if predators become too insistent.
When Tapioca first learned to count pirarucu, fishers cared about only two kinds of information: where and how many. They’d sweep a lake, like clear-cutting loggers, fishing until their take nearly equaled the preliminary count. A pirarucu numbers cruncher, Tapioca took pride in confirming his estimate with the catch. He still likes to tell this story: “Once I counted 110 in a lake. I went fishing with a team, and we got 90. When we returned to the village, I told some guys that there were probably about 20 left. They went out the next day and caught 15.”
Fishing was pretty prolific back then. Tapioca recalls when locals pulled in 50 tons in a single week. Another fisher, 41 year-old Arnaldo Daniel de Carvalho, cites older evidence: “My mother used to say that there were so many pirarucu that a guy would wake up and decide that he’d only bother to take 10 that day.”
Catches fell noticeably in the late 1990s. Biologist Castello estimated that fishers in Jarauá were getting 20 tons a season in 1998. But even that proved too much: this year IBAMA allowed a quota of five tons.
Though they took more fish to market in the old days, villagers didn’t necessarily come home with more cash. Saddled with perishable goods, they’d unload to middlemen for as little as eighty cents on the Brazilian real (about US$0.30) a kilo. In 2001, the four bulk buyers paid R$8 (about US$3.20) a kilo to the Jarauá fishers association.
Pirarucu fishing is limited to a span that lasts just a few weeks. The fish can only be caught effectively during the lowest of the low water season, when many are confined to the lagoons. When waters rise, the animals disperse.
This natural seasonality helped the pirarucu evade extinction. Also helpful is the fact that it is almost impossible to run an industrial-sized net through flood forest waterways riddled with tree branches and trunks. Nets would be torn to pieces.
Because of its size and habitat, the pirarucu isn’t really fished; more accurately, it is hunted. In an involuntary linguistic recognition of this fact, fishers generally refer to the pirarucu as an “animal.”
Pirarucu fishers work in teams. They lug small canoes through dense forest. At the lake, men trail fish one at a time. They’ll use gillnets to confine their prey, but invariably the kill is made with a spear. Sitting or standing in their canoes, fishers mark the spot where their prey last surfaced. They wait another 15 minutes – spear always at the ready. When the time comes, the fish will probably surprise them, popping up somewhere out of range, or at a weird angle. Even when they do get off a shot, not everyone is Michael Jordan. Misses are more common than hits. The most essential trait of a pirarucu fisher is.... patience.
When a fisher scores, once every day or two, he reels in his animal. The still living fish needs a coup de grace - a knock, or two or ten, however many necessary, on the head with a machete. The beast sometimes lets out a weak groan.
The victory doesn’t induce arrogance in the hunter. “The pirarucu is intelligent,” said Tapioca. “Man can only catch it because it ends up in the lake and can’t escape.”
This article is based on a visit made in November 2001. Ecotourists can visit Mamirauá. Click here for more information.