It is in the gaps between rocks in the so-called Volta Grande of the Xingu River in Altamira, a town more than 800 kilometers from Belém in the Brazilian state of Pará, that the zebra pleco (Hypancistrus zebra), endemic to the region, can be found, living up to eight meters below the surface of the water.
In the depths of the riverbed, the female spawns approximately 20 eggs, which remain under the responsibility of the male until they hatch. Due to its size, the species does not attract the attention of fishermen. But in addition to the fact that it serves as food for other fish, the zebra pleco faces a much more predatory adversary, which has put the species at risk of extinction: ornamental fish traffickers from the Amazon.
Once caught, the fish leaves the exuberance and greatness of an Amazonian river to live cloistered in aquariums in countries such as Colombia, Peru, China and different regions of Europe. It is estimated that at least 100,000 zebra pleco are trafficked every year. On the illegal market, the species can cost the end consumer 200 US dollars — approximately 1,000 Brazilian reais. However, at the end of the day, a fisherman earns a maximum of 40 reais per individual when selling to middlemen, the equivalent in today's values to 8 dollars.
Since 2004, when the fish was classified as a critically endangered species by the Ministry of the Environment, trade of the zebra pleco has been prohibited. It is currently on the Chico Mendes Institute's (ICMBio) red list of endangered species.
The zebra pleco is also on Pará's List of Endangered Flora Species as "vulnerable." It was announced this year that the list, which dates from 2006, will be updated, something that could change the current classification.
In addition, illegal fishing and sales have led to the species being listed by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which aims to ensure that trade of animals and plants does not jeopardize their survival in the wild.
However, these prohibitions didn't stop the market. Collectors' interest in the species has intensified its capture, putting the existence of the zebra pleco even more at risk.
In order for thousands to be taken out of the country, thousands more die halfway through the irregular transport in 500-milliliter plastic bags with around 60 milliliters of water and partially pressurized oxygen. The containers are sealed with rubber bands and can hold up to five individuals in each one. Most of the fish are almost dead by the time the police or environmental inspectors manage to seize illegal sales lots. Few are able to withstand the long journey to their final destination.
For Leandro Souza, a professor at the Federal University of Pará, a possible solution to saving the zebra pleco would be to regulate the breeding of the species in captivity. Souza, who heads the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) research group "IctioXingu - Center for Studies in Systematics, Ecology and Conservation of the Xingu Ictiofauna," explains that the ban without alternatives for the ornamental fish market has intensified the search for the species, making the fight for the zebra pleco's survival even more difficult.
"It's not about freeing up wild catching. It's to free up breeding. The technology for this is not difficult. And there are good producers in Brazil. If you gave them a few individuals, they would flood the market with captive fish in a few years," says Souza.
Souza believes that this would reduce illegal fishing and allow the zebra pleco to reproduce. "It's much cheaper to buy from a breeder than to send the guy to Altamira to fetch them, with all the costs of catching and mortality. The person would be buying from the breeder, not from nature," emphasizes the researcher.
Impact on habitat
The construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Station has also influenced the decline in the zebra pleco population. Before the dam was built, the species was only caught during six months out of the year, coinciding with the low water season. However, the interference of the Xingu River's water flow due to the dam almost canceled out the flooding process, allowing the fish to be caught all year round. The catch involves very different equipment from traditional fishing: Divers use air compressors and catch the zebra pleco with their hands, relying on the help of a rod that pushes them out of the gap in the rocks.
According to Souza, the habitat changes caused by the Belo Monte dam have had an impact on zebra pleco populations, but not enough to cause the species' extinction. "The remaining populations are struggling to find their new equilibrium in the hydrological regime imposed on their habitat area after the implementation of Belo Monte," says the researcher in the article "Conservation and trade of the endangered Hypancistrus zebra (Siluriformes, Loricariidae), one of the most trafficked Brazilian fish."
Despite the fish's resilience, Souza explains that the population has fallen dramatically because aquarists have come to believe that removing the zebra pleco from its habitat would be a way of protecting it from the impacts of Belo Monte. According to a survey carried out by the professor on websites and social networking groups selling ornamental fish in various countries in Europe, North America and Oceania, the posts use the approach that the practice is saving the species, rather than actually contributing to its demise. "If they're going to destroy [the river], why is it so bad to take [the zebra pleco] out of it?" says one of the arguments in favor of the trade in the species by illegal sellers.
"Paradoxically, aquarists' attempts to save the species by buying wild specimens is what may be leading to its extinction in the wild, given current environmental conditions," says the researcher. He warns:
"The existence of a species is the result of millions of years of evolution. If you lose that species, you lose millions of years of history. What's more, every species has its ecological function. The zebra, for example, eats invertebrates. Just as it serves as food for other, larger fish. If you don't have them anymore, the whole chain will suffer. It's also a bioindicator, the existence of the zebra means that the river is healthy."
According to the article "Ornamental Fish Trafficking in the Brazilian Amazon," produced by researchers from the Federal Universities of Amazonas and Rondônia and the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA), between January 2003 and January 2020, the Federal Police and Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) made 98 seizures of ornamental fish. This corresponds to more than 170,000 specimens rescued on their way to illegal sale. The cities with the highest number of seizures were Manaus (42.9%), followed by Altamira (10.2%), Tabatinga and Santarém (9.2% each) and Belém (8.2%). Another nine Amazonian cities registered 20 seizures.
Among the species found, the zebra pleco leads the ranking and was present in 44.6% of the seizures, followed by the pearl stingray (Potamotrygon jabuti, 23.5%), the Leopold’s angelfish (Pterophyllum leopoldi, 19.4%) and the black arowana (Osteoglossum ferreirai, 13.3%), all Amazonian species.
The transport method most used by traffickers is by air, which is why most of the seizures took place at airports, where Manaus, Belém and Santarém stand out. However, apprehensions were also made on the Xingu, Javari and Amazonas rivers and in the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve in the state of Amazonas. As for land transport, traffickers were intercepted on state highways AM-070 (Novo Airão-Manacapuru, in the state of Amazonas) and PA 279 (São Félix do Xingu) and on federal highway BR-010 (Belém-Brasília), in Pará. Other land arrests were made in the cities of Santarém (PA), Manaus and Novo Airão (AM).
The state of Amazonas is one of the routes most used by drug traffickers. According to Federal Police data, the crime is recurrent in the cities of Tabatinga, Atalaia do Norte, Barcelos and Santo Antônio do Içá. Outside of there, the cities of Santarém and Altamira, in Pará, are also regions marked by the catching of ornamental fish destined for the illegal market.
According to the Federal Police and researchers who are looking into the issue and were interviewed by this reporter, the main airport used by traffickers is Manaus. From there they travel with the fish in suitcases to Tabatinga. The animals are then transported to Colombia and Peru, where they are clandestinely sold in specialized aquarium shops and shipped to other continents. Ornamental fish trafficking also makes use of various online platforms to sell and distribute species. These include websites, social networks and messaging apps, where traffickers communicate with buyers and carry out transactions. A brief look on search engines will reveal this type of illegal trade.
Dener Giovanini, general coordinator of the National Network to Combat Trafficking in Wild Animals (RENCTAS), says that by monitoring ornamental fish sales groups, the organization has identified a high flow of demand from countries such as Japan, China, Singapore and Vietnam. "Asian countries generally stand out when it comes to exporting Brazilian ornamental fish," says Giovanini. However, European countries such as Holland and Germany are also in the picture when it comes to "rarer species or species that have not yet been described by science, species that are unknown," he reiterates.
In a statement, the Federal Police said it was working to crack down on the crime "through the Police Bureau in Colombia, as well as direct co-operation through the Tabatinga Police Station and the Regional Superintendence in Amazonas, in Manaus." The Federal Police also said that it "carries out intelligence work in relation to social networks and evaluates both anonymous and identified tip-offs received through its official channels".
We asked IBAMA for information on the presence of IBAMA officials at airports in the region and the intricacies of monitoring and cracking down on ornamental fish trafficking in the Amazon. Contacts were made by WhatsApp, email and telephone, but the agency had not responded to the requests by the time this report was published.
It's difficult to measure how much the illegal ornamental fish market makes each year. However, according to a RENCTAS report, it is estimated that the illegal sale of wild animals generates between 10 and 20 billion dollars a year worldwide. It is also estimated that Brazil accounts for between 5% and 15% of this total.
As well as being a serious factor in the decline of natural populations of species, the trafficking of ornamental fish contributes to the exploitation of traditional, Indigenous and riverside populations in Brazil. While traffickers make high profits from this chain of exploitation, the people who live in the areas where the fish are taken are rarely rewarded and are co-opted into a practice that is, after all, criminal.
"As catching these animals requires expertise about the areas where shoals or solitary individuals can be found and local inhabitants are the ones who have the information needed to collect them, it is common for animal trafficking recruiters to convince them to catch the fish and sell them to these same people," says Antônio de Carvalho, a wildlife trafficking specialist at WCS Brazil.
Carvalho explains that the illegal ornamental fish trade chain, like any other wildlife exploitation chain, has prices that vary according to the degree of specialization and sophistication of the operation. "For example, while ornamental fishermen earn as little as 2 reais (0.40 US dollars) for each fish taken from the wild, it is very common for traffickers to make much more in sales on the illegal market." He concludes:
"As Amazonian species are highly sought after on the international market and online sales facilitate this exploitation, it is not uncommon to see an individual being sold on specialized websites for up to a thousand times more than the fisherman receives."
For Giovanini, society is unaware of the scale of the ornamental fish trade and the damage this market does to Brazil's native species. According to him, this is due to a general belief that connects the trafficking of wild animals to better-known species such as primates, macaws, snakes and other animals, in addition to the idea that fish are just a consumer product.
"Brazil is one of the main exporters of ornamental fish in the world. It's necessary to convey this to society so that it understands what's at stake. That this is a group of animals that is extremely vulnerable because it is a priority target for international traffickers," says Giovanini.
Read the original Portuguese-language story here.
This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in O Eco on August 29, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Live adult specimen of the zebra pleco / Credit: Leandro Sousa.