April 2018

For the Love of Fish: The struggle of native fish populations in Boliva and the quest of a local grass-roots repopulation project to try and make a difference

By: Hailey Quackenbush
Projects Abroad Volunteer

According to a report released in 2014 by the organization FishBase, around 50% of the world's estimated 15,000 known species of freshwater fish are found in the tropical regions of South America. Bolivia's rugged and mountainous landscape is carved through in all directions by several hundreds of rivers and lakes, making it an important habitat for many of these freshwater fish species. However, with current practices like deforestation, commercial agriculture, dam-building, and overfishing on the rise, many of these populations are struggling to stay afloat.

One such fish is the native tambaquí. An omnivore whose diet consists in large part of fruits and seeds, it plays an important role as a seed disperser in South American ecosystems, helping to perpetuate the growth of many of the region's plants. Tambaquí are also an important food source for a fair amount of native animal species, as well as many human inhabitants.

In order to reproduce, the tambaquí depends on migration. During the non-breeding season, adult tambaquí stay in flooded forest areas or in deep river channels, but in order to spawn (lay their eggs) they must migrate to shallower areas. This is a pattern that the fish repeat every year, generation after generation. But with more and more dams being constructed across river channels over the years, this annual pattern of migration has become more and more difficult, as dams act as blockades for the fish, making it harder for them to pass through and get where they need to go in order to reproduce.

Dams hinder the migration patterns of many other types of fish, as well. And it's not just dams that are problematic for native fish populations; other industrial activities such as deforestation, commercial agriculture, and mining also have an impact. As more trees are cut down, the surrounding soil becomes looser, eroding masses of sediment down hillsides and into nearby rivers and lakes. Studies have shown that fish living in waters with too much sediment concentration can develop problems with their gills, leading them to have trouble getting enough oxygen. Likewise, chemical runoff from mining and commercial agriculture in the surrounding landscape has been seeping into Bolivian rivers and lakes, harming and thus reducing many native fish populations.

One local man, however, has decided to take matters into his own hands to try and restore some of the native fish populations. Erick Ovando has loved nature and the outdoors ever since he was a young child. He grew up fishing with his family, and when he was older he went on to study veterinary as well as human medicine at university. A few years ago, growing discouraged by the fate of local fish populations—and by the fact that the government didn't seem to be doing much to help—he decided to start his own fish repopulation project.

Luckily, given his background, Ovando had good contacts in the local animal-rearing world, and he called upon his veterinarian friend, Dr. Milton Crespo, to help him start a small farm in which to raise a handful of native fish species, most notably surubi, sábalo, and the aforementioned tambaquí. Ovando is also a member of a local fishing club, through which he was able to recruit some of the man-power he needed in order to help him go out and actually release the fish back into the wild. The name he has given his project is fairly straightforward—Repoblamiento de Peces Nativos de Bolivia—and since its inception in 2016, Ovando and his team have performed four different releases of fish in the areas of Chapare, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Beni.

Once the fish are released into the wild, the hope is that they will then go on to reproduce, thus helping to re-grow their dwindling populations. Unfortunately, though, not all of them will live long enough to be able to reproduce, as there is a risk that some of them may be caught before they are physically mature enough to do so.

The tambaquí, for instance, does not reach sexual maturity until it gets to be around 55 to 60 centimeters long; but Ovando explains that unfortunately, many people go ahead and catch them when they are still well below this size, ending their lives before they ever have the chance to reproduce. And although there are currently protections in place prohibiting the commercial fishing of the native sábalo during its breeding season, many people don't abide by these regulations. He also explains that Bolivia currently does not have any regulations regarding the amount of fish that can be taken out of the water at a given time, which has led to the overfishing of many native populations.

Not only do these fish still face the dangers of overfishing, but they are also being released out into the same hazardous and chemically polluted waters that are partly responsible for their dwindling populations in the first place. Ovando recognizes this, but still, he feels he is doing significant work. Not only is he temporarily helping to increase the native fish populations, but perhaps more importantly, he sees Repoblamiento de Peces Nativos as an opportunity to help spread the word and educate others about this critical issue.

"The most important part of this whole thing," says Ovando, "is education."

Since Repoblamiento de Peces Nativos relies on local community members to volunteer their time, Ovando figures this is a good way to help make sure that more people are aware of the problems faced by the fish populations, and thus more aware of the ways in which they can help. And seeing as many of the volunteers happen to be children and young people, he also sees it as a wonderful opportunity to help educate the next generation of environmental stewards.

It is his hope, explains Ovando, that by getting kids out in the rivers and having them participate hands-on in the fish releases, perhaps the experience will instill within them a life-long appreciation for nature, and an understanding of the importance of protecting it. With this appreciation for the natural world, perhaps these young citizens can then go forth and be part of the positive change that the world so desperately needs to see. With this education and knowledge, perhaps they can be part of a future of better-informed fishermen-and-women, who don't catch immature fish, and who understand why certain protections are put into place and then abide by them accordingly; or part of a future of who votes for more environmentally-friendly regulations to be put into place, in order to better protect the nature (and the fish) that they have learned to love.

Ovando is always eager to share his message of education—as well as his love of nature and fish—with others, and he encourages anyone who is interested in participating in the project to contact him via e-mail (erick_ovando_mv@hotmail.com), telephone (591 4 4280715), or Whatsapp (77927777). He plans on holding more upcoming release events later this year.

"My intentions are good," says Ovando, with an earnest and fervent passion in his voice, "and I hope this project can make at least some[what] of a difference."

What are some things you can do in your everyday life to help the native fish populations?

-If you see sábalo for sale when shopping at local markets, don't buy any if the time of year is between [insert months—couldn't find this info, so I am still waiting for a reply from Erick about this]. These fish are protected from commercial fishing during this time because it is their breeding season, and any that have been caught during this time-frame have been caught illegally.

-If you go fishing, do so responsibly. Make sure to educate yourself about the life-cycles of the specific types of fish you intend to catch, and if you happen catch one that is not yet mature, throw it back into the water so it can continue to grow, and thus hopefully be able to reproduce at some point.

-This one may seem obvious, but don't litter! Most garbage will eventually end up washing into nearby streams, rivers, or lakes, and adding to their pollution. Make sure you dispose of your waste in the proper receptacles (and of course, always recycle if it is possible to do so!)

- Vote for more environmentally-friendly regulations and policies to be put into place, and push for legislation that advocates for these things. Remember, it's not just wildlife that's harmed by environmental destruction; we humans depend on a healthy planet in order to survive, too!

Tandem – the cultural meeting point in Cochabamba
Cochabamba is rich on cultural diversity and in the street of Chuquisaca near Plaza Colon hides a meeting point of cultures from all over the world. It is an open-minded event and society and whether you come to practice your Spanish or English, wants to get more knowledge of another country or for a third reason, you are being welcomed with open arms by the people at Tandem. [...]
read more ...

Archive Issues

2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018