Fisheries

With the decimation of native peoples or their intermarriage with European and African peoples, peasant societies developed in villages, towns and cities along Amazonian rivers. Much of peasant knowledge about fishes and fishing was inherited, in many circuitous ways, from indigenous technology. The single most important adopted indigenous technology was the dug-out canoe, which provided the maneuverability and stealth required in subsistence fishing. The bow-and-arrow became standard equipment in peasant fishing and it continues to be used even in commercial fisheries. Europeans introduced the first metal hooks into the Amazon Basin, but many of the baits and especially the wide variety of fruits and seeds used, were based on indigenous knowledge about fish-feeding behavior. Perhaps more important than any of the technological devices adopted from the Indians was the taxonomy that the Portuguese and Spanish borrowed in order to incorporate at least part of the rich fish fauna into the two European languages. Iberians were little prepared zoologically or linguistically to confront a fish fauna as unfamiliar and diverse as that of the Amazon Basin. Where they tried, such as calling some of the freshwater species sardines, they left a nomenclatural legacy that still causes confusion to the layperson. There is no standardized Portuguese or Spanish names for the fishes in the Amazon Basin and, if there is to be one, as there should be, it will have to be done rather arbitrarily because of the regional differences that exist.

Subsistence fishing is still the principal animal protein source for much of the rural community of the Amazonian Lowlands. Except for one or two species, humans probably had little effect on the ecology of Amazonian fishes until the 1960s when the urban population began to increase rapidly. Fisheries before the1960s are interesting when seen from a subsistence perspective since the commercial fleets were relatively small and operated close to urban centers. It was from subsistence fishing, however, that Amazonian commercial fisheries evolved and are still shaped to some extent today. Urban fishermen were traditionally recruited from rural communities that provided the oral natural history knowledge and skills needed to operate in the very complex and often dangerous environments of Amazonian rivers and floodplains.

Different fisheries exploit fish in a wide variety of environmental conditions determined by specific ecological characteristics along the river continuum. The simplest fisheries usually employ passive gear, such as gillnets, hooks and traps. Seines are manipulated from small canoes. These types of fisheries are often referred to as artisanal fisheries. The only Amazon fishery involving the direct use of machinery during the fishing process is that of trawls in the estuary. These types of fisheries are often referred to locally as industrial fisheries and they target shrimp and freshwater catfish. The following discussion reviews the main environments fished along the river continuum and the types of technologies used to catch fish in each.