Background about the Fishery and History

Project Piaba History

The home aquarium fishery is the principal subsistence activity for the riverine communities in the municipality of Barcelos [Amazonas state, Brazil] (population 40,000; area 122,490 km2). The trade in home aquarium fish has contributed approximately 60% of the income revenues in the municipality. Fluctuations in fish production [and market], mortality rates and price are the main constraints on the fishers’ subsistence. In years when income from home aquarium fishing is reduced, some fishers intensify their foraging activities, while others migrate to urban areas hoping to find “modern” employment.

1 Fishers collecting - Radson - optimized for Website

Fortunately, the annually inundated, floodplain habitats of home aquarium fishes have remained largely intact. Many forest fishes have a short life cycle (less than 2 years), and fish populations can be quickly replenished. It may, therefore, be possible through proper management to protect the habitat from degradation, while maintaining harvests at the same time. (Chao, 2001)

A single species, the cardinal tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi) constitutes over 80% of the artisan fishery and export from the Rio Negro basin. Dr. H. R. Axelrod and Mr. Willi Schwartz started the Barcelos industry in 1955 as a commercial venture and the industry is still booming today.

Few things have changed over the years with regard to fish capture and transport. The same practices that they developed and implemented for fish harvesting and transportation continue to this day as local industry standards.

2.2 Tools of Fish Collection - Mike Tuccinardi OFW

The industry and the business climate in which it operates however have changed significantly.  Advancements in aquaculture technology have enabled fish farmers to propagate dozens of species of fishes; these are native Brazil species being farmed in Asia, Europe and the United States.  These farmed stocks are replacing wild caught fishes and impacting the Rio Negro Fishery and it’s benefits. Today, approximately 90% of all home aquarium fishes in the world wide trade are from farmed sources. Thus, the benefits of biodiversity of this fishery are being accrued by businesses away from this community. (Watson, 2000)

3.4 Santa Isabel do Rio Negro Village - Mike Tuccinardi OFW

For more nearly 25 years, Project Piaba has been researching and fostering this beneficial home aquarium fishery of the Rio Negro. Very early on it was discovered that the home aquarium fishery was not only sustainable, but it was the principal driver for creating value for the environment. When fishers are asked what they would do if they could not sell fish, the most common answers are: timber harvest, cattle ranching, gold mining, or urban migration. Project Piaba has provided the basis of study for hundreds of Amazonian undergraduate and advanced students. Every year a small group of international fish health specialists, trade stakeholders, public aquarium biologists, and fish enthusiasts are invited to join Project Piaba and the Brazilian team on our annual expedition to Barcelos and the fishing grounds. The outcomes of this program have led to a much better understanding of the role of this fishery and many key connections have been made that are helping the fishery to adapt to changes in global markets.
Project Piaba aims to generate data relating to a wide range of issues, from population of species diversity, to the function and structure of the ecosystem, in addition to developing measures that will help improve the livelihood of the riverine people of Barcelos, Brazil. The ultimate goal is to promote at commercially and ecologically sustainable levels, and to help to reduce environmentally destructive land use and rural-to-urban migration in the Rio Negro basin of the Amazon rainforest.

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Early Work

In 1989, researchers and students from the Universidade do Amazonas (UA) and National Institute of Amazon Research (INPA) initiated an ecological baseline study on floodplain fishes of mid-Rio Negro basin. During this initial phase, we discovered the importance of the home aquarium fisheries for local livelihoods and wondered about the environmental impact of fishing activity. Subsequently, we started Project Piaba in 1991, with our first grant awarded by CNPq (National Research Council of Brazil). We strengthened our roots in the municipality in the January of 1994 when we inaugurated the ‘Dr. H. R. Axelrod Laboratory of Ornamental Fishes’ during the first Ornamental Fish Festival in Barcelos.

The mayor of Barcelos at the time, Valdeci Raposo, provided us with a classroom. We built 20 aquariums with local fishes on exhibit and a desk with stereo-microscopes donated by a group of aquarium enthusiasts who are known as the ‘gringos’ ,’doidos’, or ‘crazy foreigners’. The small exhibition provided an opportunity for the local, ‘urban’ children see the home aquarium fishes up close and through magnifying scopes.

In January 1997, we moved the laboratory to the ‘Center of Aquatic Conservation’ during the 4th Ornamental Fish Festival. Dr. Axelrod and Tropical Fish Hobbyist publications were the major donors to Project Piaba at the time. In the ‘Center’, we greatly expanded our exhibition, and set up a laboratory/classroom and dormitories. Since that time, we have provided scholarships for several local youths to run the Center.