GUY-09: Scaling up the Arapaima - Numbers Climbing Under North Rupununi Conservation Effort
Nikolia Johann Earle Stabroek News abril 2007
The Arapaima (Arapaimas gigas) is found in the fresh waters of Guyana and Brazil. It is the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world. It is listed as Appendix II on the CITES list, meaning that it is currently threatened with extinction.
However, with its numbers slowly on the increase in the North Rupununi, the Arapaima is targeted for sustainable utilisation and this is certainly good news for the area's Indigenous peoples, who are prepared to do their part in conserving the protected species through co-management as envisaged in the recently approved Arapaima Management Plan.
Written in 2002 with major input from the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Develop-ment, the plan received the approval of Cabinet earlier this year. Designed through a series of participatory meetings between community fishermen and both governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the plan aims to increase the Arapaima populations and the lot of fishermen through improved local institutions.
As this article was being written, the government, through the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture was preparing to launch the plan in the Rupununi. Principal Fisheries Officer Dawn Mason told this newspaper recently that the ministry is to hire an officer to be stationed in the North Rupununi to manage the implementation of the plan.
The Arapaima Management Plan is based on a successful system used by the MamirauÃ¡ Sustainable Development Institutei (MamirauÃ¡ Institute) in Brazil. The system relies on determining the total harvest per annum, based on the annual counts of Arapaima.
According to the plan, the number of Arapaima is to be counted in all managed lakes at the beginning of every dry season then the count would be analysed in relation to harvest information from previous years, thus determining whether the population is growing, unchanged or is decreasing.
Based on the count and monitoring information, the Arapaima would then be harvested and shared among the fishermen and the harvest sold. Only the adults that are not reproducing would be harvested. Thirteen fishermen were trained in March 2001 to count Arapaima.
The fishing quota is determined to ensure that sufficient adults are alive and reproducing so that enough Arapaima would be around to be harvested in the future. According to the plan, all fisheries committees, with guidance from the Ministry of Fisheries and Iwokrama, would determine the quota by common sense and the information available on the counts, previous fishing quotas and monitoring results.
The Management Plan urges that fishermen always determine conservative fishing quotas in order to ensure the Arapaima stock can increase. "Fishermen should always harvest less than they want to, rather than as many as they can. It is by controlling the fishing quota that it is possible to control the size of the Arapaima stock. In this sense, it is suggested that fishing quotas are no bigger than 20 per cent of the number of adults counted in the same year. This suggestion is based on experiences of a Brazilian system, similar to this system, which, after three years, increased the number of Arapaima counted up to three times its initial size," the Plan states.
The people of the North Rupununi recognise that they have a vested economic interest in the species' conservation. Many of them are of the view that if the Arapaima population is harvested on a continuous basis in an unsustainable manner, then there will be none for them in the future. For the most part they told this newspaper that though there is less money to go around since the ban on harvesting the Arapaima, they understand why it was necessary and they look forward to sustainable harvesting.
Toshao of the village of Rewa, David Haynes said that is has been more than ten years since the village last harvested Arapaima. Haynes spoke of the community's enthusiasm to conserve the Arapaima since in the end they stand to benefit from the sustained harvesting.
"I don't hear of anyone from Rewa harvesting or selling Arapaima, but the new jobs are not sufficient to fill the gaps left from Arapaima fishingâ€¦we are getting some jobs but those are mostly for men," Haynes said.
He said potential employers in the area usually want skilled persons to work in the forestry sector. Though they do not experience a lot of exploitation from large companies, when opportunities for work come, many of the men have to leave the community.
Audrey Simon, also of Rewa, said the village is actively involved in Arapaima conservation. She said long ago, people were up and down trying to hunt the threatened species. "I don't hear about the Arapaima being sold nowâ€¦ in the past people used to sell them," she said.
Simon said that in the past, harvesting the Arapaima was important because people hardly had jobs. "The Arapaima fetched higher prices than the other fish," she said. But she pointed out that because of the efforts of Arapaima conservation some people are in a worse-off economic situation. People in the community sell farine (granular roasted cassava) and small fish, but these could never be as lucrative as selling Arapaima.
Roy Williams, another 'Rewan', said he does not see anybody catching Arapaima today and feels that the message of conservation is really getting across.
"People who used to fish for Arapaima now turn to farming and catching smaller fishes to make a living," he said. Williams also is of the view that the conservation efforts are important to get the numbers of the Arapaima back up. But he is also concerned that at night, people from other communities would go and poach Arapaima from Rewa.
"We raised this with the NRDDB, but we did not receive any satisfaction," Williams said.
The NRDDB or the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB) is located at the Bina Hill Institute, near Annai, and Rewa.
Another man from the village said persons from the Rupununi Savannah would go at night and harvest the Arapaima. "They stealing our Arapaima but they would come night-timeâ€¦ the other day they took about 600 lbs of Arapaima. We do report it to Bina Hill but they can't do anything because they do not have the powers to," the man said.
Haynes said some people are taking the conservation efforts seriously and trying to implement the advice of various experts who teach them about wildlife conservation. Haynes told this newspaper that in order to instill an attitude of conservation for the Arapaima and other species from an early age, the community, together with others of the North Rupununi have commissioned several wildlife clubs for children of all ages. "The children go to wildlife clubs and they learn to do monitoringâ€¦so from small they know what is itâ€¦how to conserve," Haynes said.
Deputy Toshao Patrick Honorio said the Grasspond, which is some distance away from the centre of activity in the village, is where a lot of the conservation activities take place. The Grasspond is a large, relatively shallow body of water with heavy vegetation growing in it. It sustains all manner of fish, plants and other life forms.
Visiting the Grasspond, it is evident to anyone with a pulse that life itself flowed from this Wetland site's rich biodiversity. With dense foliage and hilly, steep, and sometimes dizzying terrain, the land around the Grasspond is just as home to some as it is 'anything but' to others.
An early morning boat ride on the Grasspond is a serene and uplifting experience. Before the crack of dawn, all one hears is the sound of nature and one cannot help but feel a renewed commitment to conserving such beauty for future generations. Occasionally, an Arapaima would bob up to the surface and make a splash, disturbing for a fleeting moment the tranquil atmosphere.
Haynes said they feed the Arapaima and the Giant River Otter at Grasspond, which is one of the designated Wetlands sites and where studies are done to assess the success of conservation programmes. The team samples the water, examines specimens of birds and animals found in the Wetlands. These include the Otter, Caiman and various fish including the Arapaima.
Honorio said that back in 2004 he was a part of a team of Wetlands surveyors that found that only 90 adult Arapaima specimens were present in the community. He said with the continued conservation effort, the population might have increased to around 200 today.
He is of the view that 200 is a good figure to have to commence sustainable harvesting as the Management Plan envisages. And he too is of the view that attitudes towards conservation have changed from years gone.
The NRDDB's Coordinating Role
Rodney Davis, an executive of the NRDDB, said that in the 1960s the Arapaima was not harvested at all by the communities of the North Rupununi. "When the Brazilians came here for the Caimans they discovered the Arapaima," he said. Afterwards, Guyanese began to harvest the Arapaima.
According to Davis, in 1970, the government officially placed a ban on the harvesting of Arapaima.
He said that in 1998, the communities of the North Rupununi had a series of community-based wildlife management workshops facilitated by Iwokrama where the issue of Arapaima harvesting was raised.
He said that at the first workshop the members of the communities outlined all the issues seen as hindrances to conservation, as well as alternatives to harvesting the protected species like honey and aquarium fishing.
Based on the partnership with Iwokrama, "we worked to come up with ideas to combat the problem of over-harvesting," he said, adding that the workshop dealt with aquarium fish, aquaculture and Arapaima conservation.
According to Davis, a task force was set up at the level of the NRDDB to take on the responsibility and at this point, Iwokrama and the Mamiraua Institute of Brazil got involved and persons from the North Rupununi went to learn conservation techniques from the Brazilian Institute.
Mamiraua Institute personnel travelled to Guyana and counted the Arapaima with persons from the North Rupununi. The count showed a very low population at around 400. He said the second count showed an increase of 100 per cent while the last count in 2004 showed an almost 100 per cent increase over the previous count - over 1,500. To ensure reliability, the Arapaima counts take place around the same time every year.
Davis said that because of the lack of funding there is yet to be a further count. He said that the counting takes place in the North Rupununi's 200 ponds and lasts for about 30 days.
Davis said that as part of the Management Plan there would be a community fishermen's committee to represent the respective communities at the level of the NRDDB. "We wanted government to understand that what we were doing was working in the best interest of the North Rupununi," he said. According to Davis, it took some time for government "to acknowledge the importance of what we were doing.
We had to target this fish because we didn't want to lose it."
Although there is a need for wider conservation of more fish species, such a plan will take a considerable amount of time to conceptualize.
He said the NRDDB has written a proposal to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to fund counts for the next two years. This proposal, in the vicinity of US$38,000, is still pending with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And the NRDDB is working with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) for funding of a year of Arapaima counting. To ensure that these projects are well managed, the NRDDB is looking to have a technical advisor who will be based in an office at the NRDDB. The Ministry of Agriculture is to put an officer on location in the North Rupununi.
According to the Management Plan, persons could be penalized for harvesting the Arapaima, which could cause communities to lose quotas. But this still happens on a reduced scale in most of the North Rupununi communities, Davis said.
He said that because of the length of time it took for the plan to be approved, it has gone out of sight for some people. "People are very excited that the plan has been approved and they are now looking forward to when they can harvest the Arapaima.
When the Arapaima is harvested, the Executive Fisheries Committee will buy from the fishermen and look for markets. Davis is concerned about whether the fishermen will get the right price for the Arapaima.
Virgil Harding, Vice-Chairman of the village of Aranaputa said most of the men in that village are fishermen and conservation of the source of their livelihoods was of prime importance. "We were concerned not only for the Arapaima but also for all kinds of fish because we observed fishing on the whole was not like beforeâ€¦ first you would go fishing and be back home in a short while and with a lot of fish," Harding said. Things changed; fishing takes longer and there are fewer fish at the end of the expedition.
He said one of the possible solutions is changing the size of the hooks and nets that fishermen use to reduce the incidence of accidental harvesting of the protected species. He said the management plan has enabled the villagers to understand the life cycle of the various species of fish and their spawning season. "They get to understand that if they catch at a certain time the gains will be very small," he said.
According to Harding, the villagers of Aranaputa understand that from the surveys carried out there is a significant reduction in the quantity and size of fish and this has been on the downward slide for some time now. As for the Arapaima, he said villagers from the 16 villages of the North Rupununi realised that for the survival of the Arapaima to be possible they had to do without harvesting the species for about three years. He said all of the villages agreed to the self-imposed ban and "mostly" obeyed it. But he said that some persons were ignorant of the Management Plan.
There are some cases where persons unwittingly caught Arapaima in the nets or on their hooks, and when this happens, they would consume the meat of the fish.
"The plan is still working for the conservation of the Arapaima and for its sustainable harvesting as well," Harding said.
While there is much enthusiasm for the commencement of sustainable harvesting, the problem of poaching continues and if left unchecked, the situation could return to what it was before the imposition of the ban.