article on the aquarium fish collecting in Brazil

Daniel Brumbaugh brumba at
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


A Collector's Item Costs Brazilian Divers Dearly


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 
shipping waybills.

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

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