Fish Tales: Community Fish Farms Preserve Wild Fish Diversity In Southeastern Peru

October 21, 2011

In one of the most diverse regions on the planet, Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) has partnered with the Institute for Peruvian   Amazon Studies (IIAP, in Spanish) to support local aquaculture and agroforestry ventures. As part of this project, we are working with several communities along the Interoceanic Highway in the southeastern Peruvian department of Madre de Dios to develop cooperative associations engaged in a number of conservation-friendly microenterprises, including aquaculture. By developing small-scale aquaculture enterprises, ACA is working to protect wild fish populations from overfishing, maintain biodiversity and promote sustainable livelihoods for local residents. 

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 80,000 tons of fish are consumed annually [1] in the Peruvian Amazon, making fish a key protein source for local communities and maintaining an important source of employment for local fishing communities. The region’s abundant water supply, fish biodiversity, and appropriate climate make the Amazonian lowlands well-suited to aquaculture development, allowing small family farms to produce a highly marketable source of protein and improve their own food security. Not only does farming of native river species reduce pressure on wild fish populations, but it provides small farmers with a sustainable, profitable alternative to slash-and-burn farming or gold mining. 

The high aquatic diversity of Madre de Dios is heavily relied upon by local communities’ cultures and economies, yet it is increasingly vulnerable to rises in demand.  In 2009, individuals in certain communities in the Amazon were found to be eating approximately 325 lbs of fish a year [2]. As locals in Madre de Dios fish more to keep up with increasing demand, biodiversity comes under considerable pressure. For example, the paiche fish, seen to the left, is an Amazonian freshwater fish that can reach approximately eight feet in length and provide up to 150 pounds worth of meat, but it is highly vulnerable to overexploitation. Fortunately, aquaculture of Amazonian fish can decrease pressure on already scarce but highly important wild fish species like the paiche. The local market and growing national demand present important opportunities for aquaculture activities. By supporting small scale aquaculture projects in the Amazon, ACA hopes to provide a new sustainable livelihood alternative for these communities.  

In addition to the pressures of overexploitation of native fish species, the recent rise in illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios has caused an increase in the contamination of river fish by mercury, a potent neurotoxin used to extract gold. A study sponsored by ACA found that popular Amazon fish have been found to have high levels of mercury well above the standards set forth by the World Health Organization. Exposure to these toxins further diminished the health and well-being of families that are already vulnerable to diseases from unclean drinking water. Fish farms provide integral benefits to the surrounding communities by supplying safe, affordable fish.

 Together, ACA, IIAP and regional authorities are developing local technical expertise and improving links to locally sourced fish food and hatchery ponds, which represent considerable costs for small-scale fish farmers.