The Amazon River Basin’s largest fish species, the arapaima, is facing possible extinction from over-fishing.
If you are a fan of the Animal Planet show “River Monsters,” then you are probably already familiar with the arapaima to at least some extent. Professional angler and host of the show, Jeremy Wade, has fished for and landed the giant, air-breathing fish on several episodes. However, catching South America’s largest freshwater fish may soon no longer be possible.
The massive fish is already extinct in some parts of the mighty Amazon, and its numbers are quickly decreasing in other areas of the river, according to recent surveys. However, not all of the news about the arapaima was found to be negative. Researchers discovered in areas of the Amazon where fishing for arapaima is regulated, the population of fish is doing very well.
More Rare Fish Species
Ironically, one of the reasons for the decreasing numbers of arapaima is the fish’s most remarkable ability. Arapaima have a primitive lung that allows it to breathe air. This allows the fish to survive in water with low oxygen levels. However, it also makes arapaima in low oxygen water much easier to catch for native fishermen, as the fish comes close to the surface every few minutes to take a gulp of air.
“Arapaima spawn on the edges of floodplain forests and come to the surface to breathe every 5 to 15 minutes, when they are easily located and harpooned by fishers using homemade canoes,” said Caroline Arantes, a doctoral student in wildlife and fisheries science at Texas A&M University in College Station, who helped conduct the study.
The arapaima is in danger of being overfished even when local fishermen stop actively targeting the species due to its low numbers. Once arapaima are no longer present in large numbers, fishermen start to target smaller species using gill nets. In addition to the targeted fish species, the gill nets happen to also catch young arapaima inadvertently. This leads to greater species death.
The restriction of gill nets, in addition to minimum size requirements for arapaima, are very beneficial to the overall population of the species. Unfortunately, only 27 percent of the fishing communities included in the research study were found to consistently be using these practices.
“Fisheries productivity in Ilha de São Miguel is also the highest in the study area,” Leandro Castello, an assistant professor of fisheries at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, in Blacksburg said. “Cast nets are allowed because they are much more selective, yet they yield abundant fishes for local consumption, so food security for the community is not compromised.”
It is not too late for the arapaima to be saved across the entire Amazon River Basin. However, it will take a concerted effort by all involved to make sure future generations of anglers have the opportunity to fish for and catch this magnificent creature.
“Many previously overexploited arapaima populations are now booming due to good management,” Castello said. “The time has come to apply fishers’ ecological knowledge to assess populations, document practices and trends, and solve fisheries problems through user participation in management and conservation.”
This just goes to show how important hunting and fishing regulations really are to the conversation of wildlife.