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Buy exotic fish, save Amazon rainforests
You may not be aware that the fish in your aquarium tank, with its vivid colours and graceful flittering movements, has made a very long journey to get here. Often, from places as far flung as the Amazon.
Ornamental fish. © WWF Colombia / Maria Ximena Galeano

The aquarium trade, also known as ornamental fisheries, is a thriving activity in the rivers of the Amazon and Orinoco basins, bringing much-needed income for thousands of people.

But making sure that this trade is carried out responsibly requires special efforts.

Fish in great demand

More than 3,000 fish species live in the Amazon River and its tributaries1. Some of these are caught and sold on as ornamental fish because of their beautiful characteristics and ability to withstand long-distance travel to consumer countries.

Business is booming. In South America, 85% of ornamental fish are exported from priority regions, including the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and to a lesser degree from Venezuela and Guyana.

Trade routes of ornamental fish from Orinoco and Amazon basins to the rest of the world - 2005 rel= © WWF

Clouds on the horizon

But big industries often collide with sustainability of natural resources. For ornamental fish, the sheer volume of exports is raising concerns that the trade might not be sustainable for fish populations. And history shows that over-exploitation is a likely scenario.

High volume exports of reptile and mammal skins, cage birds, timber, medicinal plants, fish for human consumption have already dealt severe blows to several species in the Amazon Basin.

Other issues include the degradation of natural habitat and conversion. Mining activities and the use of agrochemicals - and in the case of Colombia, illicit crops and eradication methods - pose significant pollution risks for the waterways where fish live.

The opportunity

With some support and coordination, ornamental fisheries can be a low-intensity extractive business that offers a legal and reliable source of income generation. This industry can also prevent families from engaging in logging, gold mining, illegal crops, bush meat trade, slash and burn agriculture, etc.

Achievements so far

WWF is no newcomer when it comes to ornamental fisheries. For over 14 years, the organization was heavily involved with Projecto Piaba in Brazil, which provided positive experiences in fisheries management that contribute to local livelihoods, sustainable commerce and habitat and wildlife conservation.

The lessons are clear. Under the right circumstances, sustainable ornamental fisheries can improve forest conservation and alleviate poverty of local communities.

Scaling up to a regional strategy

Now WWF and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring arm of WWF, are taking ornamental fisheries to the next level. In the Orinoco, Amazon and Guiana forests, we are focusing on:
  • Dealing with threats to fisheries
  • Commercialization and market chains
  • Norms and legal framework
To deal effectively with these issues, WWF is engaging with actors who are involved at different levels of the ornamental trade chain. These include resource users, government regulating agencies, buyers, exporters, importers, consumers and the environmental community.

What we need to do

At the legal level, a big priority for WWF is to harmonize the disjointed norms that prevail across borders of the Amazon Basin countries. For instance, from one country to another there are often differences in species that can be legally caught, authorized fishing periods, catch size and quotas etc.

Then, there is also a need to improve information flow, especially market information. This would help to match fish exploitation and exports to demand, reducing unnecessary and wasteful harvests.

Finally, we are looking at a certification schemes for chains of ornamental fisheries export that meet best practices.

How to get there

Tackling these ambitious goals requires good data - only then can the best decisions and strategies be made. We must:
  • Improve knowledge of key species e.g. through population studies
  • Identify critical areas for management, fish habitat needs, impacts of habitat deterioration
  • Identify the best fish production models
  • Carry out genetic analysis for specific species, e.g. Arawana
  • Make market analyses e.g. potential of eco-labelling
  • Increase consumer awareness about the impact of irresponsible fisheries.

Da Silva et al. 2005. The Fate of the Amazonian Areas of Endemism. Conservation Biology, 19 (3), 689-694.

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