Consider the pirarucu

Good morning. It’s been a while. I’ve been traveling. (I’m traveling now; this newsletter is my distraction while I wait in Miami International Airport for my connecting flight home to New York.) Last month, I spent a week in Puerto Rico, exploring and reporting in San Juan and Vieques. For the past two weeks, I’ve been on assignment in Brazil, bouncing between Brasília, Manaus and Pará. I’ll have some stories about those places in the days to come.

For now, I want to tell you about a fish.

The pirarucu, also known as the arapaima or paiche, is a giant Amazonian freshwater fish that can grow longer and heavier than an adult human. In addition to gills, it has a swim bladder made of lung-like tissues that allows it come to the surface and breathe air. Silvery with flashes of red on its fins, the heavily-armored fish looks a bit like a northern pike. Except much, much bigger.

All those traits make it difficult to hide. Add to that the curse of being delicious.

You can find pirarucu served all over the Amazon Basin. At buffet lunches in Itaituba, a remote mining boomtown in the northern state of Pará, pirarucu is a staple, often cooked in a tomato sauce with local spinach-like greens. In downtown Manaus, the sprawling capital of Amazonas, you can treat yourself (as I did) to a hefty filet of smoked pirarucu at a low-key theater-district restaurant called Caxiri. The flavor is wonderful. Imagine a cross between catfish, cod and haddock.

A decade ago, the pirarucu, a prehistoric fish that dates by five million years, began showing signs it was headed for extinction.

In 2010, a study in the Journal of Applied Ichthyology found that there were four subspecies of the fish — not just one, as previously thought. And, due to overfishing, the pirarucu had become “critically dangered” and “faced extinction,” according a write-up in The Guardian.

Three years later, another species was discovered. By 2014, new research showed three of the five known species had “not been observed int he wild in decades,” Donald Stewart, a professor with the State University of New York at Syracuse's College of Environmental Science, told LiveScience.

At the time, Brazilian regulators put faith in the market to fix the problem, believing that the cost of the fishing the pirarucu would surge as the population plummeted.

Yet scientists warned that sort of economic logic failed to account for the realities of the communities that depend on the animal.

"Fishers continue to harvest arapaima regardless of low population densities," Leandro Castello, an assistant professor of fisheries at Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment, told LiveScience.

"Bioeconomic thinking has predicted that scarcity would drive up fishing costs, which would increase price and help save depleted species,” he added. “If that prediction were true, extinctions induced by fishing would not exist, but that is not what has happened."

A commercial fishing ban did little to stop poaching. But there are some bright spots. Regulators in some areas of the Amazon began adopting what’s known as a Community-Based Management approach. Indigenous communities agreed to accords that set certain dates during which protected lakes where pirarucu live could be harvested.

The results in at least one region, Juruá, were staggering, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Nature.

In lakes under the management system, pirarucu populations numbered on average nearly 305. In open-access lakes without a community-management approach, that number fell to a little over 9.

The researchers, University of East Anglia professor Carlos Peres and University of Rio Grande do Norte’ Dr. João Campos-Silva, compared the system to a “high-interest savings account” for the communities that protected the lakes. Maintaining the populations guaranteed an average annual revenue of nearly $11,000 per community, and $1,050 per household, the study found.

For some more color, this New York Times feature from 2014 offers nice look at what a pirarucu hunt through piranha-infested waters is like.

Still, it’s unclear from the study if this applied across different species. And, even if it does, that limited success could now be in jeopardy. President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government is waging an all-out assault on environmental regulations. He campaigned on industrializing the Amazon, opening once off-limits areas to mining, logging and development. On his first day in office, Bolsonaro signed an executive order transferring the power to demarcate new indigenous territory from FUNAI, the agency charged with championing the welfare of tribes, to the Ministry of Agriculture, widely viewed as controlled by the powerful agribusiness lobby. That seems to reduce the likelihood of good-faith new accords with communities.

The administration muzzled Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agencies this month, barring them to talking to the press except to respond with a boilerplate statement saying they can no longer talk to the press. So, few expect there to be increased conservation efforts of the traditional sort, either.

And all that says nothing of what climate change will do to the populations.

“We’re hoping the pirarucu can withstand such challenges, since a die-off would rob villages across the Amazon of their lifeblood,” Claudio Batalha, 47, a coordinator of a project to protect the pirarucu, told The New York Times in 2014. “Without making such fishing sustainable, more outsiders could claim the forest as their own… That’s when the threat of greater forest devastation gets real.”

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, me