As the sun set across the wide bow of Lago Mentiroso, or Lying Lake, in the Amazon Basin of Bolivia, the sky was filled with the shrill cries of blue macaws and the gentle twinkling of fireflies.
Every once in a while, a deep grunt and splash would emerge from the depths of the dark, still waters.
Jairo Canamari, a fisherman from the nearby village of Trinidad Cito, quietly whispered “una vaquita”–“a little cow”–which is one of the many names given to the invasive, giant fish that has become both a nuisance and a blessing to the area in the past forty years.
Canamari, a slender twenty-six-year-old with a closely-shaved head, steered the ten-foot canoe as his elder brother Rafael rowed us towards the shore.
Sitting in the center of the boat were Gabriel and Ahismed Justiniano Montaño, Gabriel rolling tobacco into graph paper and Ahismed armed with a paddle.
The boat was laden with the motionless bodies of red, yellow, and silver piranhas, caught earlier that afternoon for breakfast the following day. At the slightest noise of a big fish, Ahismed’s eyes were immediately alert like a cat’s.
Gabriel puffed out fragrant smoke from his nose, explaining that it was a technique to ward off caimans and snakes. He spoke in a whisper, which was the appropriate response when paiche were present.
In the Bolivian Amazon, the surubi, a type of catfish which has been a source of protein for local rural societies, has become less plentiful since the paiche began to inhabit the region.
The paiche is an immense scaled fish, reaching a length of eight feet and a weight of up to five hundred pounds. It has a sleek, torpedo-like body covered in black scales and a head plated in moss-colored armor.
By night, its eyes take on a Day-Glo green hue that could make one think of a creature from the Miocene era.
When the first paiche was discovered in the Lago Mentiroso in the early 1980s, tales circulated quickly concerning the mysterious fish. In San Buenaventura, locals reported that it had the ability to attack people.
Other villages refused to consume the paiche due to the belief its brain contained worms. A fisherman in Guayaramerin on the Brazilian border declared the paiche had the power to overturn boats with its tail if it became angry.
In Las Peñitas, rumors spread that the paiche was bred by Peruvian scientists and fed on cow’s blood.
Doña Chuli, otherwise known as Ruth Isabel Vazquez, a fish buyer in Riberalta, recalls learning about the paiche on a radio broadcast in the 1980s. She described the creature as “like some kind of a queen for them”, with a golden crown on her head.
When I asked Gabriel and Jairo, two fishermen on the Mentiroso, if they had ever heard of the paiche queen, Gabriel confirmed the story yet noted that no one had ever found her. Jairo then smiled and remarked that she was actually in the Mentiroso.
The last thirty years have seen the paiche overtake the Mentiroso in the Bolivian Amazon Basin, which is roughly seven-hundred-thousand acres.
This ecological invasion has caused a decline in the native species and has given a lift to the impoverished economy of South America’s poorest nation.
Invasive species are a common occurrence around the world, like starlings, eucalyptus trees, and dandelions in the US, but the paiche is a source of intense apprehension.
Carlos Cruz, a fisherman in his seventies from Trinidad Co, has seen villages washed away, including his sister’s family who were buried in sixteen feet of mud.
He speaks of the paiche with a sense of hopelessness, noting the decline of native species such as surub i, pac u, and pintado, replaced by just the paiche.
In his 1958 work, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants , Charles Elton, an English biologist, discussed the “ecological explosion” of living organisms.
He went on to explain that these explosions are distinct from other events due to their lack of loud noises and longer time frames.
The phenomenon of invasive species had been previously studied by Darwin and others, but Elton was the first to recognize their potential to disrupt global ecosystems.
This was highlighted by the introduction of the paiche into Bolivia’s ecosystem in 1978; the effects of this invasion were not felt until years later.
At the tender age of twelve, Gabriel Justiniano Montaño experienced a thrilling moment as he hooked his first paiche fish. The pull from the giant fish was so strong that it nearly brought him to the ground.
For five million years, the paiche has been the apex predator in the sluggish rivers and oxbow lakes of the northern Amazon.
This species, native to Peru and Brazil, is capable of consuming anything that fits in its huge, hinged jaws – from other fish to seeds, leaves, stones and mud. Paiche has been a staple in the human diet for as long as people have had the means to hunt it.
According to the Uaia tribe of the western Brazilian Amazon, the fish, known as Pirarucu in Brazil, was once a warrior prince whose god-defying behavior and violence against his own people angered the gods.
In response, the gods conjured a storm, scattering his companions and striking him with a lightning bolt, causing him to sink into the depths of the river and transform into a dark fish that terrorized the region.
Even in its native habitat, the paiche is a sinister and mysterious creature, born out of a conflict with the divine rather than nature.The once-feared prince of the rivers soon became the prey.
Communities in Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Guyana took up the task of capturing the paiche by any means possible, such as spears, harpoons, bows and arrows, and cast nets when the fish rose to the surface to breathe every fifteen to twenty minutes.
In 1975, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, listed the paiche as an endangered species and banned its export.
At about the same time, farmers in Peru and Brazil began raising paiche to protect wild populations, and in the process found the fish to be a prime candidate for export due to its swift growth rate, high fertility, high protein content, and lack of intrabony muscle.
In 2012, Time reported on the success of Peruvian paiche farms. Two years later, Whole Foods decided to provide the fish as a sustainable replacement for Chilean sea bass, due to the fact that the texture and taste of paiche meat is similar.
Chilean sea bass, also known as Patagonian toothfish, faced controversy in the 2000s, but Whole Foods claimed that consuming farmed Peruvian paiche would actually help save the species in the wild.
This was supported by a study published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems which highlighted that communities in Peru and Brazil with management plans, including fish farms, had seen a considerable increase in paiche density in the wild.On the other hand, those without such plans had mostly fished the species to extinction.
Macnaughton, a biologist who works with World Fisheries Trust, a Canadian charity, has indicated that Brazil’s system is seen as the “holy grail of fisheries management.”
It is a rare accomplishment for these communities to have been able to accurately monitor their fish stocks. The initiative to preserve the paiche in its natural environment has been successful to date.
The project in question also caused an ecological catastrophe. In the late seventies, floods breached the embankments of Lake Sandoval in Peru and baby paiche were released into the Madre de Dios River.
Surprisingly, the paiche moved at a rate of twenty miles per annum, something atypical for a nonmigratory fish. These paiche were seen building round nests at the silty edges of lakes, consuming the young of species that used the same breeding grounds.
On top of that, the paiche can lay thousands of eggs at once, and will protect its broods from other fish.
When the spring rain comes and the lakes are connected to the rivers, the new paiche generation penetrates the main river and moves up or downstream in search of new hunting and breeding grounds.
The only major hindrance to the paiche seems to be rapids. Even though there is no scientific evidence to verify that the paiche has damaged local fish populations, all the fishermen I talked to mentioned that native species have been disappearing for years, and that the paiche is the likely culprit.
Marvin Sereve and Doña Chuli claim to be the first to commercially sell paiche in Bolivia, and they believe this ecological disaster has been a blessing to the Bolivian fishermen.
According to Sereve, “the two paiche that escaped from Peru and arrived in Riberalta have been a great help. Now, everybody is fishing.”
Donald Dorado Arau hails from a family of fishers in the town of Guayaramerin, located on the border. Following the passing of his brother eight months ago, he has been devoting his time to establishing a fishermen’s union for the neighboring villages in order to settle on an equitable rate for their catch.
In the 1970s, the Brazilian government set up an ice factory in a border town close to Guayaramerin in Bolivia’s Amazon region.
This was around the same time that the first foreign settlers arrived and displaced the largely nomadic Esse Eja, Cavineño and Takana indigenous groups who had historically inhabited the area.
These settlers were from Bolivia, Brazil and other parts of the world, such as Germany, Japan and Turkey, and they were there to exploit the latex market.
However, during the twentieth century, when synthetic rubber replaced the natural kind, the economy shifted to timber, brazil nuts and then gold, for a few years in the 1980s.
Most of the families who live in Trinidad Cito now came during the rubber boom, such as Ahismed and Gabriel Justiniano Montaño’s grandfather, who worked as a foreman on a nearby rubber plantation and Carlos Cruz’s father, who came as a laborer.
The system of the habilito was employed by rubber and nut dons to sell tobacco and liquor to the poor, including the previously nomadic indigenous peoples, in order to keep them in debt and wages low.
For the past one and a half centuries, northern Bolivia has gone through cycles of prosperity and decline, with the wealth largely held by a few.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Bolivian fishermen began taking longer trips on the rivers in search of native fish such as pacu, surubi, and pintado due to the construction of the ice factory and the creation of nature reserves on the Brazilian side of the border, which made commercial fishing illegal there.
One fisherman in Guayaramerin said, “You could make a killing,” as the boats were able to carry up to twenty tons of fish.
Unfortunately, catches of native fish started to decline in the early 2000s due to the introduction of the paiche, as well as large hydroelectric projects on the Madeira River.
The abundance of inexpensive pacu and surubi from Brazilian fish farms brought Guayaramerin’s fishing industry to a halt, leaving the town’s port sadly quiet.
Meanwhile, fishermen in Riberalta began selling paiche, which now accounts for up to 85 percent of the catch coming to Riberalta’s port, the largest in Bolivia.
According to Paul Van Damme, the director of a Bolivian NGO called Faunagua, “If paiche had not entered, there would not be any fishing anymore.”
During the prosperous 1990s, Sereve first started her fishing venture with six boats. However, one was lost and her husband took two more when they divorced. She now has three boats and has become the only person in Riberalta who has a whole supply chain.
To acquire paiche, she sends fishermen upriver for a few weeks to the Beni River and pays a fee to each community for permission to fish.
Once the catch is back, she processes and packages them into paiche burgers, sausages, and nuggets at her home and sells them to cities within Bolivia.
She revealed that, in an uneventful month, she exports 8,800 pounds of paiche–a huge jump from the early days when paiche was recorded as surubi to draw buyers. For the past five years, most vendors in urban markets have been selling paiche under its own name.
The popularity of the paiche fish is rising, however its growth is limited by Bolivia’s meat-heavy diet, and by the international regulations on conservation. Nowadays, commercial fishing is the second-most profitable activity in the northern area of the Amazon after Brazil nuts.
Even though it yields thirteen million dollars annually in urban markets, it is still not a significant part of Bolivia’s economy, which is far away from the federal capital.
In the port town of Riberalta, according to Van Damme, “fishing generates less money than Brazil nuts, but it provides income to a larger number of people for a longer period of time.”
Since 2011, the yearly paiche harvest in northern Bolivia has expanded by more than double. This particular species provides an estimated three-quarters of a professional fisherman’s yearly income.
In rural areas, where people have more varied sources of income, angling brings in around 20 percent of the total yearly earnings, with half of that coming from paiche.
Since most fishermen don’t have the money to buy the specialized nets with larger openings that places like Sereve’s have, they are still taking out the same native species that they fear the paiche is pushing towards extinction.
With more and more people relying on the rivers to make money, the pressure on native species keeps increasing. Ecologically, the arrival of the paiche has been disastrous.
Nevertheless, for many fishermen and buyers, the alterations have been unquestionably advantageous. Doña Chuli has created a venture based on paiche, which engages her entire extended family.
For adolescents, paiche fishing has given them an opportunity when their other prospects are unsuccessful. Jairo Canamari was studying environmental engineering, but was expelled from the course after impregnating another student (later on they got married).
Gabriel Justiniano Montaño wanted to be a soccer player, but never managed to acquire a place on a national team. Ahismed Justiniano Montaño obtained an accounting degree five years back and tried unsuccessfully to get a job for six months.
All three of them returned to Trinidad Chito and got jobs fishing the paiche. “At least here,” Ahismed said, “there are always opportunities.”
In the Amazon Basin of Bolivia, the presence of the paiche has had a dramatic impact on the rural villages, providing a dependable source of income all year round.
Despite the market for paiche being limited to just 4% of all fish consumption in Bolivia, where the average yearly consumption is less than three kilos per person (global average is more than twenty), nearly half of the fish consumed in urban areas like Riberalta and Guayaramerin comes from fish farms in Brazil, Peru, and Argentina.
What’s more, while Peru and Brazil are growing their paiche exports, Bolivia is restricted by CITES and cannot legally export its wild catch.
For this to be allowed, according to Senator Erwin Rivero Ziegler from Riberalta, the federal government must show the United Nations scientific evidence that the paiche is not an endangered species and is not at risk of extinction inside Bolivia – a complicated and costly process that requires years of research in an area with limited resources and data.
It won’t be simple to accomplish. Until recently, Bolivia had no legislation in place concerning fishing. To create the law, Rivero’s office worked for 5 years with fishermen from the three primary watersheds.
The local embargo regulations showed little effect. The same fishermen who were extracting the fish understood the need for state intervention to protect the fish stocks through stronger legal constraints and financial support to purchase specialized equipment and to make up for their losses in an enforced embargo season.
Without those structures, the fishermen said they couldn’t afford to quit fishing during the embargo season, and did not have any motivation to do so. Rivero commented, “They were conscious that they needed to have some controls in place.
There’s a void – a void that, at last, it’s the duty of the state to fill with law. The point of the law is to address all this.”
Eighteen months later, the Ministry of Rural Development and Land has not yet passed the specific regulations that would make the law functional; in its current state it does little more than set up a federal administration that will monitor and collect data on fishing.
The only thing it formally criminalizes is fishing with explosives.
Jairo Canamari fishes for the paiche, a species native to Peru and Brazil, which has been able to spread to northern Bolivia due to a lack of political will and international conservation law.
Doña Chuli, also known as La Sucha, has been able to build a family business around the species and many Bolivians are able to find livelihoods thanks to the paiche.
The species has been able to dominate nearly a quarter of the Amazon basin and it has been hunting along the edges of oxbow lakes, where it consumes young native species that are now slowly disappearing.
Fishermen have developed techniques to track the paiche and they have been able to construct processing centers to break down the fish and store them before they are sent to be sold.
However, the lack of power along the fish’s supply chain and the cost of ice have been major issues to accessing a commercial market.
Rafael Suarez, also known as Junior, has expressed concern that a hydroelectric project will not only stop the migration patterns essential to their local fish stock, but also facilitate the paiche’s invasion of their river.
Fishermen in San Lorenzo have yet to decide if they believe the paiche is a blessing or a curse. However, they believe the species entered the river around half a century ago, due to a heavy flood season that was caused by the construction of hydroelectric dams across the border in Brazil.
Taking paiche from San Lorenzo to the nearest major town is a long journey, with the product sitting in the backs of pickup trucks, often spoiling under the hot tropical sun.
Conservation law makes fishing in Brazil illegal, although the fish was never native to this part of the Brazilian Amazon. Bolivians eat less than three kilos of fish per person per year and at least half of it is imported, resulting in depressed prices on products fished within Bolivia.
With the fish continuing to extend its range by more than thirty kilometers each year, it is becoming a great threat to the aquatic habitats of Bolivia.
As the amount and geographical range of paiche catches rises annually, the marketplace may become oversaturated.
Those laws for the protection of a vulnerable species, which inadvertently caused an influx, could eventually cause a great deal of difficulty for those most affected by its presence.
The expansion of the fish has been quicker than the enforcement of the law, similar to how the news of the invasion spread faster than the fish itself.
The shortcomings of conservation laws become particularly evident on the banks of the Mamore, a wide and swift river that serves as the dividing line between Bolivia and Brazil.
In the village of San Lorenzo, fishermen identified the paiche four years ago, though scientists believe they were present before, yet not in large enough quantities to draw attention. Now, they are being taken out of the adjacent river by the dozen.
The hamlet of San Lorenzo consists of a mere dozen homes that stand in a row along a single, dusty roadway. Mango and tamarind trees provide shade as the dirt street runs beside the river.
There is an old water tower, a disused park near the river, and a soccer field that has been taken over by cattle. Every morning, the fishermen who inhabit the village witness the Mamore River and Brazil across the way.
Twice a day, speedboats fly by on the opposite bank. One of these vessels transports villagers to a different town in Brazil, while the other is a police boat that watches for illegal activity, mostly fishing, in the wildlife reserve that was established in the 1970s.
When viewed from Bolivia, the Brazilian side of the river appears to be a combination of ancient traditions and a modernizing world. On one side of the Mamore, the paiche is invasive; on the other, it is endangered.
When I first arrived in San Lorenzo, I went to the banks of the river with Samuel Surubi, who is a local fish buyer who also sells beer, coca, and tobacco–the three intoxicants fishermen use while on the water (the habilito is still popular).
Surubi then encountered two fishermen who had arrived from a short distance downriver with their catches. Raul Chavez Parada, or Cata, and his companion, Josue Castro Barveris, had twelve paiche in their boat and placed them like tally marks in the mud.
The lightest of the fish weighed thirty pounds and the largest was double that–which was considered small.
Rolando Rei Pereira, otherwise known as Roli, a twenty-five-year-old fisherman, stood at the edge of the river and was swinging a bucket filled with burning egg cartons like an incense burner, attempting to keep the mosquitos away without success.
Cata’s elder brother, Jesus Chavez Parada, or Papayo, was using a flashlight to illuminate the fish, which made their green eyes shine like lanterns.
Josue, who had a wad of coca in his cheek, bent over the lengthy, dead bodies and separated them one by one, cutting open their protected skin like a jacket, cutting around the joint at the neck area, removing the head and guts with one pull, and scraping off the thin layer of lungs. Hogs were waiting in the shrubs to take away the remainder of the viscera.
The following day, I encountered Antonio Medero, a fisherman in a settlement called Deus Que Me Deu (“what God gave me”), who resided on the Brazilian side of the river.
He informed me about Brazilian buyers who, beginning in the early 2000s, came to Bolivian villages to purchase baby paiche for their fish farms across the river.
Out of fear of being caught transporting a protected species, they would toss the young paiche into the water when they noticed customs agents getting closer. Brazilian authorities have become much more stringent in recent years.
Despite his knowledge of nearby lakes filled with paiche, and of the fact that he could easily obtain hundreds of pounds from the river next to his house like the men in San Lorenzo do, he won’t fish it–the peril of being apprehended while selling paiche in the market is too great.
“How will they know where it came from?” he inquired. “The fish doesn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese. Here, it is completely forbidden.” Medero was less concerned with the absurdity of the rule than with the consequences of its violation.
Martin Nuñez, a biologist at the University of Tennessee, has refined Elton’s definition of an invasive species as one that was introduced by humans after 1500 CE.
While Nuñez initially thought these species were accidental stowaways on boats and planes, he found that most were deliberately released.
On the other hand, Matthew Barnes, a biologist at Texas Tech University, defined an invasive species as one that negatively impacts human economies and disrupts the expected environment. He believes the label of “invasive” is a human construct.
In Bolivia, anglers are still adapting to catching the invading giant. At Lago Mentiroso, they use only fishing lines, while in other areas, the more efficient net method is employed, although it can also capture local species.
Humans are the main instigators of invasions and have the words to categorize them, but we are not the only ones who suffer the consequences. Presently, invasive species are the second leading cause of global extinction, with habitat destruction being the first.
To try and reduce the destruction of biodiversity that these species cause, humans rely on laws and science. However, the most practical way to stop these invasions is through preventative measures, as by the time they become noticeable, it is usually too late to do anything.
The laws that are in place correspond to nation-states and borders which are themselves man-made. For example, in the case of the paiche fish, these regulations and laws have only increased its spread.
The scientists describe the paiche as invasive, however, the fishermen I spoke with consistently regarded it as “unnatural,” an anomaly in their environment.
The concept of nature as a well-oiled machine is a human creation, much like the myth of the Uaia warrior who was transformed into a fish. Extinction, transformation, and evolution are all part of nature.
The arrival of a species as large and imposing as the paiche cannot be contained by our regulations or boundaries, thereby undermining our feeble attempts to control nature and reminding us that nothing is permanent – neither nature nor ourselves.
The future is found in the paiche fish. In Trinidad Chito and Riberalta, its presence is essential for the residents to maintain their way of life.
To protect the fish, the village has implemented regulations to only use lines for fishing and to ban nets. Carlos Cruz, a fisherman, proudly declared that Trinidad Cito is committed to sustainable fishing.
Senator Rivero commented that the paiche is already there and it is not something negative. Even in San Lorenzo, where it is seen with both anger and fascination, many fishermen have accepted it as part of their livelihood.
On my last evening in San Lorenzo, Donald Dorado Arau summoned a group of fishermen to Surubi’s house, a platform under a metal roof that was exposed to the stormy wind. Mexican soap operas were playing in the background as Surubi retrieved beer from his storage.
Arau talked about working rights, sobriety, and defending Bolivia’s resources from poachers. “It is believed that there is an abundance of resources, but it may not last forever,” he said.
Pinduca, a fisherman, spoke up and mentioned how the paiche fish had replaced the other fish and there seemed to be no solution. The group nodded in agreement and continued drinking their beers. “Let’s make this our fish,” Pinduca concluded.