article on the aquarium fish collecting in Brazil
brumba at amnh.org
Tue Nov 6 14:11:20 EST 2001
For those still following the recent thread on sustainability of reef
resources, local communities, and the aquarium trade, a recent
article from the NY Times (albeit on the collection of freshwater
fish for aquaria collectors) will be of interest:
I've copied the text for those without good web access.
November 5, 2001
COTOVELO DO XINGU JOURNAL
A Collector's Item Costs Brazilian Divers Dearly
By LARRY ROHTER
COTOVELO DO XINGU, Brazil - The tiny fish, among the most exotic and
coveted in the world, are hardly larger than a thumb. But they are
worth their weight in gold on a clandestine international market.
Lured by that prospect of wealth, as many as 400 divers have come to
this remote stretch of river in the heart of the Amazon jungle,
plunging to ever deeper and more dangerous depths, gasping for air as
they surface. Their goal is to capture as many of the fish as
possible for collectors' aquariums, but each success makes their prey
even harder to catch.
The level of activity here is especially high in early fall because
the end of the Amazon dry season is fast approaching. It is easier
for divers to capture the fish when water levels are so low that
shoals are exposed than during the six-month rainy season, which
begins in November.
José Luiz Freitas da Silva, 26, is among the divers who have been
aggressively taking advantage of those favorable conditions. He lives
in a shack on the riverbank here, growing the food that he and his
family eat, but depends on the fish - black and white striped or
brightly spotted members of the catfish family - for most of his
"Every week, the dealer in Altamira sends someone out by boat to
collect the fish that I have captured," he said on an early fall day,
still wet from a series of dives, as he sorted his catch by the
riverbank. "This week I caught a lot of the little zebras, so I
expect to make about $120," a bounty by the standards of the
Brazilian interior, where the minimum wage is $75 a month.
The fish are now considered so valuable in this remote jungle area
that they are being used as currency. At riverside general stores,
for instance, proprietors will trade food, gasoline and medicine for
a little zebra, the prevailing exchange rate being $4 a fish.
Brazil has sought to control their sale in order to prevent the fish
from being wiped out. Those efforts have only encouraged a network of
black- market dealers more than happy to meet a persistent demand in
the United States, Europe and Japan, no matter what the law says in
"The margin of profit in this business is obscene, as high as that of
cocaine," said Horácio Higuchi, a tropical fish expert at the Emílio
Goeldi Museum in Belém, the oldest and most respected center of
scientific research in the Amazon. "This is a covert, cutthroat trade
that attracts the most dishonest kind of people precisely because
there is so much money to be made."
While divers here say that they can expect to receive no more than $5
for a particularly beautiful specimen of the most prized species -
the delicate armored catfish, known in Portuguese as the "zebrinha,"
or "little zebra" - a single rare albino specimen can fetch as much
as $600 from collectors in Japan, Dr. Higuchi said.
In addition to those working this stretch of the Xingu River, the
money has drawn an equal number of divers to the Tapajós and
Trombetas rivers, two other hotbeds of the trade, said Bruno Kempner,
head of a local peasant rights and environmental group.
The presence of so many divers is depleting fish stocks, and the
scarcity is forcing the divers to take greater chances as they
descend deeper and into more remote corners.
"Over the past year, I've heard of three cases of divers dying," said
Mário Borges de Almeida, a former gold miner who works as a riverboat
pilot. "Almost everybody gets hearing damage as a result of their
eardrums bursting from the pressure they have to deal with at the
depths they are forced to dive in order to find the fish that buyers
Because of their poverty and the remoteness of the area, almost none
of the divers use scuba tanks, and many do not even have masks. The
questionable legality of what they do has also prevented them from
forming any kind of union, and that leaves them open to exploitation
by the savvier fish dealers who control the trade.
"The art of capturing the fish is painful and extremely arduous, but
the divers are the ones who have to pay the highest price," said
Antônio Melo, the regional representative of the Brazilian Institute
for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, a government
agency that is in charge of efforts to enforce protected species laws.
Mr. Melo said that there was little he could do to prevent the illegal traffic.
He has only five agents to monitor all wildlife in a jungle area that
is more than twice the size of New Jersey. In any case, budget
considerations and the lack of quick and reliable transportation
limit their effectiveness and their ability to reach places where
violations might be taking place.
In an effort to blunt the traffic, 10 years ago the Brazilian
government compiled a list limiting the legal capture and export of
tropical fish to 180 species. "But that list is based on species from
the Rio Negro," more than 500 miles west of here, "which are
completely different from those we see in this part of the Amazon,"
Dr. Higuchi said.
Tropical fish dealers, he said, have also learned to get around the
restrictions by routinely filing false customs declarations and
Hoping to halt the depletion of stocks, the Brazilian fish dealers
and government officials are planning to draw up new recommendations
to expand the protected species list. But Dr. Higuchi argues that no
conservation effort can work without public awareness and support.
"There are hundreds of species that scientists haven't even described
yet," he said. "But here in the state of Pará, people are not very
interested. It's ironic, but if they collect fish at all, they prefer
Asian species, like the goldfish."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
NOTE: From 10/25-11/28/01, I'll be in reachable
in California by email or phone at (805) 528-7401,
(646) 522-6239 (cell).
Dan Brumbaugh, Ph.D.
Marine Program Manager
American Museum of Natural History / Biodiversity
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024-5192
off: (212) 496-3494
fax: (212) 769-5292, -5277
brumba at amnh.org
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