Climate solutions

Saving the giant of the Amazon

For biologist João Campos-Silva, protecting a single fish species is the key to improving the quality of countless human lives.
Published in August 2020icon-clockTime to read: 4min 3s

João Campos-Silva was in graduate school when he learned that the giant fish that patrol the Amazon River were dying. Upwards of ten feet long, arapaima, also known as pirarucu, are the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world. For as long as anyone can remember, they’ve been a staple food for the local, largely indigenous communities that line Brazil’s great waterway. And now, he learned, they were being fished to the point of extinction, threatening long-term food security in the region.

After beginning a degree in biology, Campos-Silva had initially specialized in bird conservation. But upon learning about the plight of the arapaima and the people it supports, he decided to switch his focus. “I saw it as a huge opportunity to show how we can put biodiversity conservation together with people’s wellbeing,” he said.

That was nearly ten years ago. Since then, Campos-Silva has been on a mission to save the species. His work has taken him up and down the 1,900-mile stretch of the Juruá River, a southern tributary of the Amazon, to collaborate with more than 40 villages. He was recently honored with a prestigious Rolex Award, which will help him scale up his conservation efforts and will bring the significance of his work to greater public awareness.

Beyond the life-changing impact he’s already had on numerous fishermen, their families and their extended communities, Campos-Silva believes his work is a way to demonstrate to the world that conservation and economic prosperity needn’t be mutually opposed. Indeed, he believes the ancient relationship between Amazonian cultures and the arapaima is a reminder that human societies are an essential dimension of biodiversity itself.

“It’s very important to me because the arapaima could elucidate a new pathway for sustainability in the Amazon, where we can really align the preservation of nature with human social needs,” he explained.

We need to disseminate good ideas that can inspire people and bring hope. I believe that optimism is the most important ingredient to keep fighting for a better world.João Campos-Silva

  • Of the 600

    marine fish stocks that are monitored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

  • 69%

    are fully exploited to overexploited

  • 7%

    are depleted

Where have all the arapaimas gone?

Campos-Silva always had a passion for the natural world. He spent much of his childhood playing in the forest bordering his hometown of Piedade in southern Brazil. But his fascination with the wildlife and indigenous cultures of the Amazon began the day his mother handed him a book on the country’s rainforest biodiversity when he was ten years old. “It was life-changing for me,” he said, recalling the sense of awe those pages evoked in him.

Around the same time, the government had its own ecological awakening. Nearly ten percent of all freshwater fish caught worldwide come from the diverse waterways of the Amazon. And the arapaima was long considered among the area’s most coveted catches. Served in Michelin-star restaurants in Rio de Janeiro, the giant fish, which tastes similar to pollock or cod, is considered a delicacy, due in part to its rarity and cost. In 1996, to maintain sustainable stocks, authorities in the Brazilian state of Amazonas first imposed a general ban on arapaima fishing for everyone but locals.

But despite the legislation, overfishing remained a problem. Instead of the traditional means of catching fully grown arapaima canoes, clubs and spears some indigenous fishermen began using modern take-no-prisoners methods, such as gillnets. The population of the giant fish plummeted.

I do think it’s entirely possible to achieve sustainable fishing worldwide. We know that fish stocks quickly recover if properly managed.Tony Long, CEO of Global Fishing Watch

Of course, the ecological problem of overfishing extends far beyond the Amazon. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), of the 600 distinct marine fish stocks they’re monitoring worldwide, 69 percent are fully exploited to overexploited, and 7 percent are depleted. Another global study found that illegal and unreported fishing results in the loss of around 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish, representing $10 to $23.5 billion, each year.

Tony Long, CEO of the non-profit Global Fishing Watch and former commander in the British Royal Navy, is working to promote effective oversight of marine resources. Despite the scale of the problem, he remains hopeful. “I do think it’s entirely possible to achieve sustainable fishing worldwide,” he said. “We know that fish stocks quickly recover if properly managed.”

As a young biologist, Campos-Silva too was hopeful; he knew that effective management of the arapaima was possible. Yet he also knew it would require buy-in from the very communities that were largely responsible for the fish’s dwindling numbers.

Teach a man to fish sustainably

As it turned out, local communities didn’t need much convincing to change tactics. After years of returning home after a long day on the water with nothing but empty nets a far cry from the bounty they heard about from earlier generations local villagers were eager for solutions. Campos-Silva began educating them about the necessity for aquatic wildlife management, while also actively engaging them in his research and conservation methods. Together, they’ve established multiple protected lakes to regenerate arapaima stocks. Their efforts have paid off. “In some places, the population of the arapaima have increased by more than 400 percent,” said Campos-Silva.

As for the human impact, the results of Campos-Silva’s conservation work are manifold, extending far beyond the security of individual fishermen. “The protected lakes can ensure a huge social security for communities,” he said. A portion of the proceeds from fishing income is reinvested back into the communities, he explains, helping to improve schools, health centers and other social services. As a result, there’s been a dramatic decline in locals particularly young people leaving villages in search of better opportunities in the cities of Brazil and abroad.

To Campos-Silva, the project is a powerful example of how the health of ecosystems and communities are intertwined. Yet it’s also a vital corrective to the conventional narrative about modern environmentalism.

“The conservation paradigm is often immersed in gloom and doom scenarios,” he said. To counter this trend, he argues, people need more exposure to stories of positive initiatives. “We need to disseminate good ideas that can inspire people and bring hope. I believe that optimism is the most important ingredient to keep fighting for a better world.”

Focusing on arapaima was a huge opportunity to show how we can put biodiversity conservation together with people’s wellbeing.João Campos-Silva

The Laureate Questionnaire

João Campos-Silva reflects on how the Rolex accolade is helping to extend the impact of his work in the Amazon.

For over four decades, Rolex has supported the ingenuity of activists, scientists and community leaders through their Awards for Enterprise. This effort got a boost in 2019 with the launch of Perpetual Planet, an initiative that encompasses the company’s wide-ranging interventions to support research and advocacy on environmental issues. For Rolex laureates like Campos-Silva, the award can amplify vital but often under-recognized efforts to protect the planet.

You are joining a thriving network of past and present Rolex Award winners. What has it meant to be a part of that community?
“Being a Rolex laureate is a huge honor to me, especially because it provides an opportunity to explore with others new ideas for a huge scaling of our work. But more importantly, it has put a spotlight on the central role that local communities play in the future of the Amazon. They are doing very important work and the world needs to recognize it.”

Has the recognition helped broaden your work?
“Yes, Rolex has opened many doors and helped to increase the credibility of our work. It’s helped to expand our goals to build on the work we’ve done in creating protected areas and think bigger when it comes to conservation in region. Not only the conservation, but also the well-being of local peoples. So our projects have only been increasing!”

What new initiatives will Rolex’s support help you pursue?
“The idea of our next project is to perform zoning of the entire Juruá River, where every local community will be responsible for protecting a set of lakes. And these communities, both inside and outside protected areas, will be linked together in a value chain of social and economic benefits.”

What can readers do in their daily lives to support the environmental efforts in the Amazon?
“I believe that the sustainable future of the region depends on collective action. We can all help by consuming products that are fair trade and farmed or created responsibly. Readers can also share these stories with people in their life who may not know about the successful examples of conservation in the region. The Amazon plays an important role for all of humanity we have a responsibility to ensure its environmental and cultural legacy.”

These stories highlight Rolex's commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.

  • More than 40 village

    marine fish stocks that are monitored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

  • Along a 1,900-mile stretch

    of the Juruá River, a southern tributary of the Amazon.

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