At sunrise on a September day in 1991, as Scott Dowd’s riverboat floated up the Rio Negro in Brazil, flocks of shrieking macaws streaked the sky red and gold. Otherwise, “my full field of vision was filled with jungle,” he remembers.
Best of all for the self-described “fish nerd” from Weymouth, Massachusetts, the dark waters beneath his boat teemed with beautiful fish—species he’d kept in aquarium tanks since he was 10. Now he was headed to the place they’d come from: Barcelos, a town of 20,000 in the heart of the Amazon.
But when he got there, he was horrified.
The riverfront was jammed with men in dugout canoes. They had come from the surrounding municipality, a rainforested area the size of Pennsylvania, bringing hand-woven baskets lined with plastic, now brimming with tiny, colorful fish. Tubs of the fish they caught would fill the entire bottom floor of an 80-foot ferryboat headed to Manaus, 280 miles to the south.
The fish were bound for exporters supplying home aquaria around the world. The estimated catch of tropical fish leaving the area, Dowd discovered, was more than 40 million fish per year. “My kneejerk reaction to this was, this was out of control!” he says.
But now, 22 years later, he eagerly admits: “I could not have been more wrong.” Today he is a senior aquarist with the New England Aquarium in Boston. When he’s not training electric eels or organizing anacondas, Dowd is working to promote a project he helped found shortly after that Amazon expedition.
It’s based on a counterintuitive premise: that fishermen can protect rainforest, nourish the local economy, and promote animal welfare by taking large volumes of wild fish out of their natural habitats to ship them thousands of miles away.
“There are extremists who want to see the entire aquarium industry shut down,” Dowd says, “but in this case, it’s protecting not only the fish, but the whole ecosystem.”
Fishing for Sustainability
Named Project Piaba (Piaba means “little fish” in Brazilian Portuguese), the project’s slogan is “Buy a Fish, Save a Tree.”
“It’s a really intriguing, groundbreaking project,” says Paul Boyle, senior vice president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The idea at first sounds outlandish. Freshwater fish may be the most threatened group of species on the planet, facing obstacles from dams to pollution, according to Gordon McGregor Reid, chair of the Freshwater Fish Specialist Group at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
In some countries, ornamental fish for the aquarium trade are overfished—particularly species that take years to mature and then produce only a few offspring, such as rays. Marine species face similar challenges, and are often collected by squirting cyanide into living reefs. This stuns some fish, kills many others, and decimates coral habitat.
But along the Rio Negro, fishermen capture shy, small fish quietly and gently, by hand. Families who live in thatched-roof houses built on stilts above the rising and falling river scoop the fish from the water with handheld nets, then transfer them with hollowed-out gourds to baskets. Unwanted fish are released instantly where they are caught. “I know of no more benign fishery,” Dowd says.
How can the area sustain an annual take of 40 million fish? Every year, when the dry season comes and the water level drops, billions of ornamental fish lie doomed in drying puddles. Many species compensate by producing extravagant numbers of offspring, with each female laying hundreds, if not thousands, of eggs.
Normally these fish are so plentiful that many dozens can be captured in a single sweep of a net; but when they are not, fishing families move to a different area, allowing local populations to recover. And lucky are the fish scooped into their nets. In the wild, it’s rare for, say, a cardinal tetra to survive a full year. In captivity, that fish might live two or three.
With Project Piaba Co-founder Ning Labbish Chao of Universidade Federal do Amazonas (since retired from the project), Dowd saw an opportunity and sought to nurture it. The small fish of the Rio Negro are “exactly what hobbyists love,” he says.
Sculpted by the dark, acidic river’s challenging conditions—including an annual drop in water level of more than 30 feet—the fish have evolved strange forms, bizarre habits, and striking colors. The marble hatchet fish can fly to escape predators. Splash tetras leap from the water and spawn on the undersides of leaves to protect their offspring. The cardinal tetra glows in neon stripes of electric red and iridescent blue to help them school in dark waters.