uShaka Sea World aquarist joins research team in Brazil

Matt holds a rare, large Loricariidae specimen, a member of the biggest catfish family

During the latter half of 2012, uShaka Sea World aquarist Matt Needham was invited by Scott Dowd of the New England Aquarium to join an expedition to the central Rio Negro Basin in Brazil as part of Project Piaba.

Founded in 1989, Project Piaba is a community-based initiative focused on understanding the ecological and socio-cultural systems of the Rio Negro Basin, in order to conserve and maintain the region's delicate renewable resources.

The project aims to promote the sustainable harvest of aquatic resources, to ensure survival of both the Amazon rainforests and their human inhabitants.

Matt formed part of a research team of 20, comprising veterinarians, aquarists, biologists, nutritional experts and water-quality specialists.

The Iracema was home for two weeks

After months of preparation the researchers arrived in Manaus, Brazil on 19 January 2013, boarded a small vessel named Iracema and headed directly up the Rio Negro River. They spent two weeks on the vessel, exploring the river and stopping at various points of environmental interest.

Their first major stop was Barcelos, where ornamental fish caught by local fishermen are taken before being shipped to Manaus in preparation for the export market.

After two weeks of travelling in style, the water became too shallow and a three-hour canoe ride was necessary to reach a small village called Daracaua. Here the researchers planned to spend time with local fishermen, watching their techniques, asking questions and finding out about their daily challenges.

Village life in such areas sees everyone involved in the harvesting of natural resources. Until recently these villages survived solely on the commercial harvesting of ornamental fish, and did not need to resort to environmentally destructive practices to survive.

Researchers use seine nets to capture specimens

The greatest challenge faced by the villagers is the high taxation rate imposed by airlines on fish exports, which makes it difficult for them to compete with farm-bred fish from the Far East.

Other challenges related mainly to animal husbandry, so the research group dedicated a lot of time to studying local ecosystems, identifying weaknesses and strengthening those.

If villagers could lower the mortality rate of harvested fish, their return would be greater and they would be better able to compete commercially. Harvesting ornamental fish has been a way of life for these villages for more than a century and other options – forestry and mining – offer bleak alternatives.

The researchers eventually spent three weeks in Brazil, marvelling at the incredible biodiversity of a region that supports thousands of different species of fish, hundreds of different species of amphibians, beautiful birds and a few elusive mammals, all of which live in harmony with the locals.

Matt holds a tiger pleco, a fish endemic to the Amazon Basin

As he left Brazil, Matt was filled with gratitude and pride, and humbled by the villagers he had grown to admire and respect for the way in which they look after their environment. Gratitude for being invited to participate in such a life-changing project, and pride at what the team had achieved.

The researchers left the villagers with hope for their future, and best-practice guidelines designed to help them continue fishing sustainably while remaining competitive in the ornamental fish industry. In exchange, the villagers afforded him a unique, first-hand experience of a natural world he had only ever read about.

Matt, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree, is passionate about the sustainable use of natural resources and sharing his knowledge with those who will benefit from his first-world education, and the experience he has gained by working at uShaka Sea World’s world-class aquarium.

His dream is to secure sufficient funding to rejoin Project Piaba when the team heads off on its next outreach project.


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