2019 Rolex Awards Laureate
The largest scaled freshwater fish in the world – the giant arapaima – is bound for extinction. But in a close partnership with local associations and fishing leaders, fisheries ecologist João Campos-Silva has a plan to save not only the arapaima but with it, the livelihoods, food supply and culture of the indigenous communities who depend on the Amazon’s rivers for survival.
“The arapaima is a fantastic fish. It's very large – up to 3 metres and 200 kilos. It has fed Amazonian people since the earliest human society,” he says. But overfishing, habitat fragmentation and water pollution have decimated wild populations almost to the point of extinction in many localities.
Campos-Silva has already demonstrated that it can be saved. Protection of river-connected lakes in the western Amazon has enabled a spectacular 30-fold recovery in local arapaima numbers. Closing the lakes has also brought populations of manatees, giant otters, giant turtles and black caiman back from near-collapse – while the fish recovery is yielding thousands of dollars in new income for struggling forest communities.
The 36 year-old plans to take that local experiment to 60 new communities outside protected areas, with the goal of raising fish numbers fourfold in just three years. “The extra income will build schools, health clinics and create jobs – especially for women – from fishing and fishery management“, he says. Saving the fish is thus an antidote to poverty.
“The arapaima has become the fish for changing the Amazon. Community-based management of arapaima is a real bright spot, able to boost optimism for many people.” Over time, he hopes, saving wildlife to save human communities is an idea that can spread around the world.