Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest

(Scientists in the Field Series)
HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN 978-0544352995

Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World's Largest Rain Forest

At sunrise, as his riverboat floated up the Rio Negro, flocks of shrieking macaws streaked the sky red and gold. Otherwise, “my full field of vision,” Scott Dowd remembers, “was filled with jungle.” Best of all for the “fish nerd” from Weymouth, Ma., the dark waters beneath his boat teemed with beautiful fish—species he’d kept in aquarium tanks since he was ten.

Now he was headed to the place they’d come from: Barcelos, Brazil, a town of 20,000 in the heart of the Amazon.
But when he got there, he was horrified.

amazon delta
Photography by Keith Ellenbogen
He found the riverfront jammed with men in dugout and plank canoes. They had come from an area of rainforest the size of Pennsylvania, all bringing hand-woven baskets lined with plastic, brimming with tiny, colorful fish. Tubs of fish filled the entire bottom floor of the big weekly ferry boat to Manaus.

All were bound for exporters supplying home aquaria around the world. The estimated catch of tropical fish leaving the area, Dowd discovered, was 40 MILLION fish per year. “My kneejerk reaction to this was, this was out of control!” Scott said.

But now, 21 years later, he eagerly admits “I could not have been more wrong.” Today a Senior Aquarist with the New England Aquarium in Boston, this charismatic, funny, and articulate researcher is working to promote a project he helped found shortly after that first Amazon expedition.

It’s based on a counter-intuitive premise: that these jungle fishermen are actually protecting the rainforest, nourishing the local economy and promoting animal welfare—all by taking wild fish out of their natural habitats to ship them thousands of miles away.

Every year, Scott has returned to Barcelos with a group of scientists, veterinarians and aquaculture experts to work with local people, check up on the fish, and nurture the project he founded.

Now, to bring their story to the SITF series, Scott has invited Sy and Keith to come along.

riverboat on the amazon
Photo by Keith Ellenbogen
We’ll travel by riverboat from Manaus, one of the great fishing capitols of the world, down the Amazon to the port of Barcelos. On the journey, we’ll meet pink river dolphins, see lily pads the size of throw rugs, maybe even watch giant otters six feet long hunting in the shallows. At night, we’ll cruise past the red glow of the eyes of crocodiles called caimans, lining the edges of the water like a landing strip. At dawn, we’ll wake to the growling chorus of howler monkeys.

houses on stilts
Photo by Keith Ellenbogen
Once in Barcelos, we’ll accompany the fishermen of the Rio Negro as they capture shy, small fishes quietly and gently, by hand. Families who live in thatched-roof houses built on stilts above the river scoop the fish from the water with hand-held nets, then transfer them with hollowed-out gourds to plastic-lined baskets of water. Unwanted fish are released instantly where they are caught.

How can the area sustain an annual take of 40 million fish? Every year, when the dry season comes and the water level drops, billions of ornamental fish lie doomed in drying puddles. Many species compensate by producing huge numbers of offspring—plenty for fishermen to catch. And lucky are the fish scooped into their nets. In the wild, it’s rare for, say, a cardinal tetra to survive a full year. In captivity, that fish might live two or three.

“I know of no more benign fishery,” says Scott. Most important, without harming the fish they catch,, the industry is helping to save the Amazon—because these lucky little fishes are key to the local economy. Barcelos’ aquarium trade now provides 60 percent of the cash income for 40,000 people who live in an area of 46,000 square miles.

Because of the importance of the home aquarium trade, the fishermen and their families stand fast against environmentally disastrous timber, cattle ranching and mining projects. They know that degrading their rivers would end their livelihoods.
In local parlance, the little fishes are called piaba (say it “pee-AH-bah”)—a synonym for “pipsqueak” or “small fry.” But today, to be a “piabeiro” (as these fishermen are called) is a Big Deal.

barcelos ornamental fish festival
Photo by Keith Ellenbogen
For the last 14 years, Barcelos has held an ornamental fish festival each January celebrating the profession and the fishes. It’s similar to the more famous Brazilian Carnival. Amid elaborate floats and fireworks, elaborately costumed singers and dancers dress up like giant cardinal and discus fish and compete for prizes. The town has even built a stadium, the Piabodrome, for the event. We’ll time our expedition in order to document this fun, colorful festival.

But there’s a dark cloud on the horizon, and we’ll write about this, too. Some pet stores are turning to captive breeders in the U.S. and Asia, who use hormones to force their fish to spawn in captivity. That could mean that piabeiros would lose their jobs. Eliminate the piaba payoff, and the local economy, piabeiro culture, and reasons to resist logging and mining will disappear. So Scott’s work with his “Project Piaba” is especially important now.

In this book, we’ll document the science of how Scott and his colleagues check on the health of the captured fishes and the Amazon environment, and how they are working with local people to ensure the fishes are kept healthy on their long journey to aquaria around the world.

It’s a story set in the greatest jungle in the world. The Amazon is full of astonishing creatures, and our pages will be full of them: from the impossibly pink river dolphins to the toothsome piranha, from spiders who spin webs as big as volleyball nets to ants who create gardens underground. And the fishes! The dark, acidic waters of the Rio Negro have sculpted incredible forms, including fish who build bubble nests in trees and fish who fly out of the water to hunt. We will meet them all.

man with tubs of aquarium fish
Photo by Kieth Ellenbogen
Kids who have fish tanks will recognize many of the fishes we’ll be meeting in their natural habitats here in the Amazon. The cardinal tetra, glows in neon stripes of electric red and iridescent blue, is one of the most popular tropical aquarium fish in the world. Surely they wonder how their pets got from their Amazon habitat to their fish tank in America. Our book will give kids a direction connection between the pet in their tank and the great Amazon itself. They may even meet one of the families that caught their fish for them!

Scott in fact is dreaming of pet stores providing a QR code that can be scanned by the hobbyist, who can then link to a website where he can meet the people who caught his new pet—and see how his purchase is protecting the Amazon. “If it tells the story of helping families protect their environment,” he says Moore, “then that’s a great thing.”

Photography by Keith Ellenbogen
And Project Piaba is actually even bigger than the Amazon. It’s a model that could work around the world. The Western Ghats of India is also a prime area for freshwater aquarium fish, and it’s one of the world’s most heavily populated Biodiversity Hotspots—supporting elephants, tigers, hornbills and 400 million people. In Bali, communities are working to restore destroyed coral reefs in an effort to revive the aquarium fish industry. More than a dozen countries are interested in using similar models for their fisheries and conservation planning. Conservation organizations from the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are unanimous in their approval and support—since it benefits both people AND animals.


The Amazon offers unrivaled opportunity for lush photography—but especially so with a photographer superbly skilled both on land and under water. Our pages will be enlivened with dramatic landscapes, stunning birds and graceful monkeys, huge spiders, radiant butterflies, compelling portraits of scientists and fishermen at work, scenes from thatched-roof villages and colorful cultural events, and underwater shots of spectacularly colored fishes, dolphins and caimans.


We would leave in January 2015, to coincide with the Piaba festival. The expedition would take two weeks, most of which would be spent in Barcelos, Brazil. Except for one night spent in sleeping in hammocks in the forest (thanks to the acidic black water river, mosquitos are few) and our first and last nights in Manaus hotels, we will be living on a river boat—offering total immersion in the Amazon environment.