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Arapaima Re-classification and the Trade
By John Dawes

The arapaima is one of the largest freshwater fish on the planet, often referred to as being the largest scaled freshwater fish known to science. Between 1977 and 2004, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) recorded the export of 87,045 live specimens of the species for ornamental purposes (quoted by L. Castello and S. Stewart in Journal of Applied Ichthyology, Vol. 26, Issue 1,).

Although this figure is not fully representative of all exports to date, it reveals that the level of exploitation of the species for ornamental purposes is small compared with the large harvests other industries carry out for food consumption. Such harvests were as high as 1,400 to 1,600 metric tons annually in the 1930s, but progressively declined, with a little over 300 metric tons being recorded in 1985. Since then, data are virtually lacking.

Arapaima gigas
This is Arapaima gigas …or at least, it’s been this up to now. But what of the future? Photo by John Dawes
It is this lack of statistics, added to the declining harvest trend, which led Castello and Stewart, believing that current levels of exploitation are not sustainable, to take a closer look at the arapaima,. At the moment, the arapaima is listed under CITES Appendix II, thus requiring the appropriate export and import documentation for legal trade to occur. It also used to be listed as “Vulnerable” by the World Conservation Centre (IUCN), but it is now listed as “Data Deficient.”

According to Castello and Stewart, the species “is highly appreciated by aquarium hobbyists around the world, but due to its rapid growth and important size, the number of people able to purchase this species is limited.”

Nonetheless, the value (at trade prices?) of the 87,045 specimens mentioned above is estimated by the authors to be around $1.74 million. Today, with baby arapaima for aquaria retailing in some countries at $125 each or more, and with juveniles and adults fetching correspondingly higher prices than this, the value of exports from 2004 to date (the level of which appears to be unknown) is likely to be proportionately higher.

Today, while the species is still caught from the wild, there is a growing number of breeding and rearing farms in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Guyana and Peru. Some of these establishments can be traced online, with at least one claiming that it can produce around 10,000 specimens per month. In fact, according to the Institut de Recherche pour le Dévelopment website; “With breeding under better control, Arapaima farming could become one of the world’s most profitable forms of fish farming, with up to 4,000 fry per brood reaching as much as 12kg each after only 12 months’ growth.”

Castello and Stewart studied populations of arapaima in Brazil and Guyana and examined specimens “preserved in several large international collections (including type materials in Paris an d London, and non-types in Manaus and several U.S. museums).”

As a result, the data “suggests that all four nominal taxa are valid.” The four nominal taxa referred to are four species of arapaima originally described in 1847 by Cuvier and Valenciennes: Vastres agassizii, V. arapaima, V. cuvieri and V. mapae. These were all subsequently lumped together as Arapaima gigas.

We therefore find ourselves in a situation similar to that surrounding the dragon fish (Scleropages formosus). In other words, if--after CITES CoP15 (CoP stands for “Conference of the Parties”), the results of which are not known at the time of writing this column--we end up with four species of S. formosus, with all the complications that this is likely to cause for trade in these fish, we should brace ourselves for a similar arapaima upheaval at the next CoP--or even earlier. <HOME>


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