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Imagine a rivalry bigger than the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames. Now add opposing parades of gigantic fish floats, dancers glittering in sequined costumes, animated dance moves… and you’ve got the annual Ornamental Fish Festival in the Brazilian town of Barcelos.

Cardinal tetras are popular in home aquariums worldwide. Photo: Jennifer O. Reynolds

Cardinal tetras are popular in home aquariums worldwide. Photo: Jennifer O. Reynolds

This town is so passionate about the ornamental fish trade, which employs their residents, that they pay homage to the cardinal tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi) and the discus (Symphysodon sp.) – just not at the same time please. Like team pride that is inherited and passed on from generation to generation, these Brazilians are on the side of either one fish or the other. There simply is no in between. The rivalry is so fierce that a rule exists that the opposing sides can’t boo each other during team performances. So they quietly sit in the stands with long faces until it’s their turn. And when it’s their turn… watch out!

Reynolds (right) works alongside Brazilian colleague Gabriel Franco de Sa (centre) and Dr. Tim Miller-Morgan of the Oregon Sea Grant to improve local knowledge about fish health. Photo: Eric Rasmussen

Reynolds (right) works alongside Brazilian colleague Gabriel Franco de Sa (centre) and Dr. Tim Miller-Morgan (left) of the Oregon Sea Grant to improve local knowledge about fish health. Photo: Eric Rasmussen

This is just one incident that makes Jennifer O. Reynolds, a senior biologist at the Aquarium, realize just how much these people rely on the tropical freshwater fish to make a living. She travelled to Barcelos, the “Ornamental Fish Capital of the Amazon,” in February 2013 with 22 other aquatic professionals from aquariums and industry all around the world. The purpose of the trip was to see firsthand the research and outreach work that Project Piaba, an ornamental fish conservation initiative, conducts on issues pertaining to the sustainable ornamental fish trade. The organization works closely with local fishermen to find out how they can be best supported.

Local piabeiros catch cardinal tetras in shallow streams. Photo: Jennifer O. Reynolds

Local piabeiros catch cardinal tetras in shallow streams. Photo: Jennifer O. Reynolds

A fisherman’s routine goes something like this: he heads into the dense rainforest of the Rio Negro to fish in the tributaries for two to three weeks; the fishes are brought back to Barcelos where they are held in tubs (cassapas) in floating transfer stations (futuantes) on the river; they’re transported via river boat to export facilities in Manaus and then shipped around the world.

The way she explains it, a sustainable ornamental fish trade is a win-win situation. “We want to support them in maintaining a sustainable livelihood,” she adds.

Fishermen keep rainforests intact by not taking jobs that destroy them (such as agriculture and cattle ranching), and they support their families by sustainably fishing abundant fishes for the worldwide ornamental fish trade. Ultimately, it’s about coming up with a framework that protects the rainforest and its wildlife, while allowing the local people to make a decent living from them.

 

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