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Zebras Seized at Manaus Airport

The October 2017 seizure of smuggled fish is the largest one on record in terms of the number of Amazonian species involved.


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Juvenile Hypancistrus zebra specimen exhibiting the attractive markings that make this such a desirable species

Birgor A (Wikimedia Commons - Gnu Free Documentation License)

“Illegal wildlife trade is a serious crime that gives the responsible pet industry a bad name.” So says Ornamental Fish International (OFI), the worldwide trade organization for the ornamental aquatic industry, in the wake of a major seizure of illegal fish made at Manaus (Amazonas) Airport on Oct. 14, 2017.

While OFI, as well as all the other trade organizations throughout the world—including the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), the Spanish Pet Trade Organization (AEDPA), Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters’ Association (SAFEA) and the Florida Tropical Fish Farmers’ Association (FTFFA)—vigorously condemn such practices, there’s no denying that they occur. The sad thing is that every time a seizure is made, it reflects negatively on what is an industry that, apart from notable exceptions such as these, is pretty clean and plays by the rules.

The latest seizure, which is the largest one on record in terms of the number of Amazonian species involved (seven), is no exception and, like most of its predecessors over the years, made headlines because of the high-profile—and high-priced—species involved. In this instance, the fish in question are numerous zebra plecos (Hypancistrus zebra), some freshwater stingrays and other plecos (sucker-mouthed catfish), and, among them, two as-yet not described species. Of course, the fact that these two species are not described doesn’t necessarily make them rare or illegal within the trade. What makes them illegal in this particular instance is that the two men who were arrested were trying to smuggle the fish out of Brazil.

Aside from the illegality of the attempt to take the fish out of the country, it is the zebra plecos that were the major cause for concern. The reason is that this spectacular fish has been driven out of most of its natural habitat in the Rio Xingu by the construction of the controversial Belo Monte dam, which is now about 50 percent constructed. Even now, the wild population of H. zebra is being squeezed hard, but this is nothing compared to what will happen once the dam nears completion. Basically, the species is expected to disappear altogether from its home waters, or to become so restricted as to make its future survival most unlikely in the wild.

Such is the level of concern for this small catfish that, following an official request from Brazil, CITES listed it on Appendix III with effect from Jan. 3, 2017, alongside several South American freshwater stingrays. This makes the zebra pleco and these stingrays the first ornamental fish species ever to be listed on this appendix. While such listing does not prohibit trade, or carry the same stringent documentation demands required for Appendix I or II species, it does bring in certain controls on trade.

The Appendix III listing by Brazil is widely believed to represent an effort to combat smuggling of zebra plecos from its waters via neighboring countries and onto the world market. However, there is no way of knowing how effective or otherwise this move is proving to be, because we are only made aware that zebra smuggling is actually occurring when a consignment is intercepted, such as this latest one. So, for all we know, Appendix III listing might, indeed, be preventing or restricting attempts to smuggle the fish. Or are we seeing the tip of a much bigger, hidden-from-view iceberg?

In the video that accompanied the press report on the seizure on the AquaA3 website, I counted more than 50 zebra plecos. Bearing in mind that the image did not appear to include the whole of the container into which the fish had been placed by the authorities or show if there was another similar container with more fish, it would seem reasonable to conclude that there were more than just these zebras among the 672 specimens seized. But let’s assume that there were 55 specimens. With individual fish retailing at several hundred dollars each, say, $300, we are looking at around $16,500 for this one haul. If there were more than 55 specimens, then you can do the arithmetic yourselves. Whichever way we look at it—and not forgetting that the total seizure came to 672 fish—this single illegal consignment could have netted the perpetrators quite a handsome pay packet.

In closing, it is relevant to mention that the zebra pleco is currently being bred in captivity in Asia. We don’t know too much either about the exact locations of these breeding establishments or how many fish they are producing. Nonetheless, if the zebra pleco story has a (limited) silver lining, despite the awful prospect that it might soon be wiped out in the wild by the Belo Monte dam, we can perhaps draw a little comfort from knowing that the species, as such, is likely to survive. It might not do so in the natural surroundings in which it should be swimming and breeding but, at least, it is not likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future. A crumb of comfort, but a valuable crumb nonetheless.

An Overview of CITES

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. 

Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and international trade in specimens of these species is prohibited, except when the purpose of the import is not commercial (e.g., for scientific research). The Convention, however, provides for a number of trade exemptions to this general prohibition. 

Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but that could become so unless trade is closely controlled. It also includes so-called “look-alike species”—species whose specimens in trade look like those of species listed for conservation reasons. International trade in specimens of Appendix II species may be authorized by the granting of relevant permits. 

Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a party (CITES member country) that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in specimens of species listed in this appendix is allowed on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.


John Dawes is an international ornamental aquatic industry consultant. He has written and/or edited more than 50 books and has contributed more than 4,000 articles to hobby, trade and academic publications. He is the editor of the OFI Journal and a consultant to AquaRealm, the new trade show that took place June 2017 in Singapore.

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