Fair-Trade Pets? Eco-Fish Touted to Save Amazon Enclave

Adrianne Appel
for National Geographic News
March 28, 2007
Starbucks does it. Chocolate companies do it. Now pet stores are brandishing the "fair trade" label.

Groups hope to convince aquarium owners to buy eco-friendly, fair-trade fish as a way to save part of the Brazilian rain forest (interactive map: Amazon rain forest).

The flashy red-and-blue-striped cardinal tetra fish provides income for rural communities in the Rio Negro region, near the city of Barcelos.

Using hand-paddled canoes and small nets in flooded, forested areas, the low-tech fishers have kept regional stocks healthy for more than 50 years.

But commercial fish farms in Florida recently learned to breed the finicky cardinals in captivity. Now some conservationists fear the tank-raised tetras will lead to a degradation of Rio Negro livelihoods and consequently its ecosystems.

"If this threat is untended, it could result in the collapse of the Rio Negro industry," said Scott Dowd, senior aquarist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts.

Dowd acknowledged that most ornamental freshwater fish are raised by fish farms, but he hopes to keep the cardinal tetra from that fate.

Dowd and others have a plan to certify the Rio Negro cardinals as eco-friendly. They'll try to persuade aquarium owners to buy the Brazilian fish instead of their farm-raised cousins, which will likely be cheaper.

"Aquarium hobbyists are environmentalists—they use money out of pocket to have a little ecosystem at home," Dowd said. "We want to convince them that purchasing these fish are good for the environment in the Brazilian rain forest."

(Related: New Aquarium Fish's Supply Dwindling Just Months After Discovery [March 21, 2007].)

Buy a Fish, Save a Tree

The Forest Stewardship Council, based in Bonn, Germany, has agreed to do the certifying, but funds must be found first.

The international conservation organization WWF, the wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC, and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) back the program, Dowd said.

Only fishers who adhere to eco-friendly standards and handle the fish properly would receive certification, Dowd said.

The fish could be sold in pet stores with the slogan "buy a fish and save a tree," meaning an Amazon rain forest tree, Dowd said.

Sales of eco-friendly saltwater fish started last year and are slow, said Marshall Meyers, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a pet-trade association based in Washington, D.C.

"The jury is still out. The true hobbyists understand it, but probably the general public hasn't caught on," Meyers said.

The pet industry supports eco-friendly certification of fish and believes they can be sold side-by-side with farm-raised fish, Meyers said.

Emotional Connection

Nearly all pet cardinal tetras come from Brazil—about 40 million a year, Myers said.

In Rio Negro the current income from fishing is enough to keep logging, mining, and city encroachment from getting a foothold in the region, Dowd said.

That's why the forest is currently protected.

Michael Rambarran is a fish wholesaler at Ornamental Fish Distributors in Miami.

He wants to continue to sell wild Brazilian cardinal tetras. For one thing, the color is more natural than that of tank-raised fish, he said.

"Our clientele wants the wild-caught fish," he said.

New England Aquarium's Dowd is also hopeful that the eco-friendly fish will catch on.

"These are live fish," he said. "People have an emotional connection to them."

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