Arapaima population alarmingly low
Implementation of fishing regulations urged

Stabroek News
April 29, 2001

Guyana's Arapaima fisheries must be effectively regulated before the population of the rare fish is irreversibly affected, according to a joint recommendation from Iwokrama and the Mamiraua Institute for Sustainable Development in Brazil.

A press release issued this week from the Iwokrama International Centre stated that current protection of the species by the Fisheries Regulations has been ignored by fishermen intent on capitalising on the profitable catch.

At present a large Arapaima, which could yield up to 100 kilogrammes of meat, is worth about $40,000; smaller fish are worth around $8,000.

Of great concern recently has been over fishing of Arapaima in the North Rupununi and the increasing number of outsiders from Lethem, Brazil and Georgetown harvesting Arapaima alongside local fishermen.

The main market for Arapaima is in Brazil and the press release noted that the Brazilian populations of the species have been reduced to commercial extinction by over fishing. The demand for Arapaima meat in Brazil is now taking its toll on the Guyanese stocks of the fish.

Under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Fisheries Department, the Mamiraua Institute and Iwokrama have surveyed the numbers of the Arapaima remaining in the North Rupununi, counting fish stocks in over 150 lakes.

This survey produced alarming results estimating that there are only 425 Arapaima over one metre long left in the North Rupununi and, of these, only 213 are over 1.5 metres [classified as large].

The situation has been exasperated by the inefficacy of local law enforcement agents and the press release suggested that there were local concerns of corruption. It is alleged that some law enforcement officers are actively involved in trading Arapaima.

Recommendations by the Marimaua Institute, based on fisheries management experiences in Brazil, include the development of regulations that help with co-management of the Arapaima fisheries. This would entail local communities working with the EPA and the Fisheries Department to manage the industry.

The second major recommendation is that the Government of Guyana should permit a restricted local harvesting of Arapaima, which would be marketed in Guyana as opposed to Brazil.

This recommendation would involve giving exclusive fishing rights to the local communities, which would enable them to benefit economically from the stocks and would encourage future conservation of the species in the area. It is recommended that only Arapaima over 1.5 metres be fished and breeding periods should be sacred.

The Marimaua Institute did not recommend a ban on Arapaima fishing because bans have proved difficult to enforce in the past.

It is hoped that Iwokrama can establish links between the Environmental Protection Agency, the local communities and the Fisheries Department and that environmental education programmes might be introduced to further develop awareness of sustainable use of natural resources in Guyana.

The sustainable harvesting of Arapaima could benefit the fledgling eco tourism industry in the country, being seen as a local delicacy for sale in restaurants and resorts.

Discussions between Iwokrama, the Fisheries Department and community representatives have already taken place on possible future plans.

The Arapaima

The Arapaima (also known as pirarucu or paiche) is the largest scaled fresh water fish in South America, reaching up to three metres in length and weighing over 200 kilogrammes. It is an excellent predator and is paramount in the regulation of other fish populations in rivers and wetlands.

Previously widespread throughout Guyana, Arapaima are now found only in the Rewa, Essequibo and Rupununi Rivers in the North Rupununi sub-region. The reduction in numbers has been mainly due to the great value of Arapaima meat. As such it represents one of the most sought after fish species in the Amazon.

It requires air to survive; surfacing every 15 minutes to catch a breath in much the same way as a dolphin behaves. Its reproductive behaviour is very complicated, including migration, nesting and rearing its young. Thus, harvesting adult Arapaima during breeding usual results in the loss of future generations of the species because of the dependency of the young on their adults for protection.