For many years now conservationists have been appalled at the use of rare river dolphins as bait in Brazil’s catfish fisheries. Now, Brazil has confirmed that as of January 2015, a five year ban on catfishing will be enforced.
The announcement was made Tuesday by Brazil’s Fishing and Aquaculture Ministry. The ban will cover the fishing of the piracatinga species of catfish which isn’t eaten locally but is often exported to nearby Columbia, where the fish is a delicacy. Piracatinga feed on rotting meat, and species like the Amazon river dolphin provide large carcasses that can be used to lure hundreds of catfish.
The plight of the freshwater dolphins received new attention after a television broadcast showed a mother and infant Amazon river dolphin being butchered so that their flesh could be used as bait. This prompted a civil inquiry which ultimately led to the signing of a raft of new regulations, like the ban, to try to combat Brazil’s fishing problems. Estimates suggest that some 1,500 freshwater dolphins are killed each year for this purpose, though getting an exact number on that isn’t easy.
In fact it’s difficult to say with confidence that the Amazon river dolphin, sometimes known as the pink river dolphin or “boot,” is definitively an endangered species due to a lack of data on its numbers, but several river dolphin species appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as critically endangered and so there is a concern that before observers can really get a good measure of these beautiful creatures, they will already be too close to extinction to save.
To compound this problem, the “boto” river dolphins are found only in the Orinoco, Amazon and Araguaia river systems, so there is a real threat that their numbers could be drastically reduced and very quickly. In fact, estimates suggest that since the pink river dolphins became one of the main sources of bait 10 years ago, the dolphin’s numbers have declined by around 50 percent.
Brazil’s bold five year ban on catfishing, which will be implemented alongside a subsistence program to help fishing businesses impacted by this ban, will also help to bolster the numbers of other species of river life that are used to catch the piracatinga, including the river dolphin tucuxi and alligator-like caiman.
A pressing question though might be: Why only a five year ban? According to ministry spokesman Ultimo Valadares, the five-year ban might sound like only a short-term measure, but the government is embarking on a quest to find an alternative, more sustainable bait that will allow local fishing businesses to pull in catfish, whose numbers can sustain moderate fishing, without endangering other species.
The more urgent concern, however, is why the ban doesn’t begin immediately. Brazil has reportedly banned one catfish fishery that solely relied on dolphin flesh as bait but, as above, the ban doesn’t technically come into force until January 2015. The fear is that with that ban looming, fisheries might now take to mass killing so as to stock up on bait before the ban comes into force.
That said, conservationists believe that the ban is a significant and strong move, with Jone César of the Friends of the Manatee Association, a conservation group based in Manaus, Brazil, saying “It’s the biggest fisheries ban since 1967 when Brazil’s original faunal protection laws were made.”
Conservationists will therefore be paying close attention to ensure that this ban is implemented, and in the meantime monitoring fishing activities to ensure that the river dolphins are not being besieged ahead of the ban coming into force.