From Amazon to aquarium
Recently I was one of eight volunteers on a project which researches
a cottage industry unique to the Rio Negro, a mighty tributary of the Amazon.
Much of each day was spent in fishing, carried out with scientific vigour
and serious purpose, our main quarry bein the ornamental fish sought by collectors
The aim of the project is "to promote a stable subsistence fishery so that the
forest, wildlife and local peoples and the cultures can be preserved."
"An economically feasible fishery at local level would redu the pressure of economic
exploitation through deforestatior and hunting. An international fish trade is
essential to a sustainable fisher in Amazionia." (Professor Chao).
Except during the hottest part of each day, we were in dugc canoes either netting
or trapping fish, sometimes in mid stream and often in the flooded forest itself.
In the river we cast nets at different levels, recording at eaci one the temperature,
pH and degree of oxygenation of the water and the depth and speed of the river.
The main stream fielded turtles, catfish and piranhas, and Chao wishes to encourage
the fishermen to catch such edibi fish too, especially as species new to man constantly
appeai but it was close to the banks and amongst the trees themsel~ that the ornamental
fish were found.
The fishermen are Indians" of mixed stock working from tiny clearings on the river
banks. Once a week their catch taken to the market town of Barcelos, where they
are trans shipped to Manaus for export.
Approximately 40 million of these tiny fish are exported annually (although about
30% die in transit) and the questionarises as to whether such fishing is sustainable.
Chao thinks it is, but he is concemed at the long-term question raised by the
poor financial retums accruing to the fishermen who receive about $4 per 1,000
fish delivered, whereas we pay about that sum for each fish (for particular rarities
it can be £20 or £30 each!).
It is no wonder that some of the forest dwellers are either beginning a "slash-burn"
policy to augment their meagre
incomes or drifting into Manaus to join the regiments of slum r dwellers there.
Chao treads a tightrope, therefore, between overfishing on the e one hand and
the locals' grinding poverty on the other. He is also up against the cheaper commercial
farming of these fish in the States and elsewhere.
I enjoyed it all. We saw caymans and dolphins, stingrays and little electric eels,
enormous spiders, many birds from huge black vultures to brilliant kingfishers,
butterflies of every size and colour - a great working natural holiday.
Rio Negro, Amazonia - Jose instructing us on how to fish in an igarape
(forest stream). Photo: Hugh Miners
Swifts are among the last breeding migrants to arrive in this country.
This is because the insects they feed on are not lar or abundant enough until
the middle of May. The birds nee to replace their energy after a flight of over
Other small birds arriving in this country take a big gamble with the arrival
date. They must time their nest building an later the rearing of their chicks
to coincide with the maximu crop of insects. In a cold spell, causing a late spring,
the number of successful clutches is greatly reduced.
Birds of prey such as owls are very laid-back. They are usually the first birds
to begin nesting early in January, but some years, if food species are scarce,
apparently by mutual agreement they don't bother to nest at all.
Probably the worst nest builders in the entire animal kingdom are the pigeon family.
Usually a few sticks laid across a branch are all the parents bother with. Many
eggs never hatch at all, simply because they fall out of the nest! All the pigeon
family are like this, from the common wood pigeon right up to the giant Victoria
crowned pigeons of New Guinea. It is thought that this might be because they are
descended from birds that were originally burrow-nesting.
Among the most elaborate and most successful nests of our native birds are those
of the long-tailed tit. The delicate, bag- like nest is made of moss and cobwebs.
Inside may be between seven and fourteen eggs.
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