Community monitoring and management of arapaima fish in Acre, Brazil

Feijo map
Feijó, Acre, Brazil
2008 - present
man and cow
Arapaima fish © WWF-Brasil/Edvilson Gomes
Key Lessons 
  • Collaborative effort between local institutions, community volunteers and NGO researchers is a powerful mechanism that can improve the livelihoods of fishing communities that are negatively impacted by forest degradation.
  • Combining monitoring schemes with traditional knowledge brings significant results with respect to fish resources. By incorporating traditional skills into natural resource management, managers and fishing communities have been able to regulate sustainable harvesting quotas and maintain healthy populations of arapaima.
  • With basic training in protocols, smartphones, GPS systems and apps, community volunteers with little formal education can become citizen scientists. However, local support is still important in the evaluation of tested protocols and to ensure good quality data.
  • Community volunteers are generating useful data on fisheries and arapaima populations, which is valuable in terms of rapidly expanding knowledge, enhancing public understanding of environmental issues, and contributing to adaptive management decisions taken by the communities themselves.

This innovative project involves community management groups in monitoring the population dynamics of the arapaima fish and the impact of arapaima harvesting on other fish species and ecosystems. It is based in the Brazilian Amazon, in the Envira river floodplain, in the municipality of Feijó, State of Acre. Arapaima (Arapaima gigas, known in Brazil as pirarucu) is an important fish for both economic and environmental reasons: it is commercially valuable across in the Amazon basin and plays a key role in ecosystem regulation. This initiative uses participatory processes from three rights-based tools to achieve key objectives:

  • To help local communities and institutions claim or protect their rights over their resources in a way that preserves traditional skills and values.
  • To strengthen communities’ own rules and regulations for conserving biodiversity, whilst promoting sustainable community-based natural resource management.
  • To help users negotiate collective agreements for access, use, and equitable sharing of resource benefits. 

The project is part of a Fishery Improvement Program for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, in partnership with WWF-Brazil, WWF-UK and the Amazon Fund (administered by the Brazilian development bank, BNDES) and the local Fisher’s Union. This case study is based on information from Antonio Oviedo, of WWF-Brazil.

International Forest Agenda/s 
Monitoring Theme/s 
Natural resources

Name and ID of user

Location of fishing areas

Input for fishing (quantity of fuel, food, ice)

Type of fishing vessel

Fishing duration

Fishing gear (quantity and length)

Species harvested (type, quantity and size)

Name of managed lake

Area of managed lake

Number of adult arapaima

Number of juvenile arapaima

Harvesting of arapaima (quantity, sex, size and weight)

Hunting (date, location and picture)

Illegal fishing (date, location and picture)

Fish mortality (date, location and picture)

Ecosystem services

Aquatic vegetation in managed lake (amount of biomass removed annually)

Fish production in managed lake (annual production)

Dry season (date, location and picture)

Flood (date, location and picture)

Water quality change (date, location and picture)

Deforestation drivers

Deforestation (date, location and picture)

Wellbeing & social issues

Household (head of household, GPS location and picture)

Household income from fishery

Household income from arapaima harvest

Benefit-sharing among users, community association and Fisher’s Union

Policies & measures

Fishing agreements regulated by IBAMA (location)

Fishing rules (description)

Illegal practices and conflicts (date, location and description)

Policy context

In 2003, the Brazil's federal environment agency (IBAMA) published an ordinance defining the criteria that underpin fishing agreements and acknowledging community-based fishing management initiatives. This opened the way to integrate community-based fishing management into the formal regulatory structures. Public policies regulate the fishing season for arapaima and define the minimum size that can be caught. IBAMA also issued a moratorium in Acre, which prohibits the fishing, processing, transportation and marketing of arapaima, with exceptions only for specific cases where management plans exist. The harvest quota for these management plans is 30% of the adult arapaima, a figure set through negotiations between IBAMA and the fishermen themselves.

Although regulations for managed fishing exist, the monitoring and enforcement of these policies is limited, despite arapaima being listed as an endangered species in the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). An example of this poor enforcement is that despite its protected status, there are only a few management plans in place where local fishermen have carried out the necessary annual assessments.

The policy of setting up community guards at key arapaima fisheries is considered only partly effective. To some, the issues stem from the unwillingness of volunteer guards to risk confronting fishing vessels from outside their comunities. Others see fishing guards as ineffective with regard to local fishers, because the kinship networks  among families in the communities mean that volunteer guards often face the problem of having to sanction relatives or close friends. Fishing agreements depend on the occassional patrol of lakes, which typically only a few volunteers do, while most avoid the task. While this may work for dealing with occasional incursions by outsiders, it is insufficient to deal with “inside” violators from the community itself. Guarding fishing lakes is also beset with logistical and financial difficulties, and the lack of efficient mechanisms for punishing violators and solving conflicts create another challenge for such a management scheme. Community volunteers and IBAMA agents have not yet tackled this challenge, which can partly be attributed to the lack of resources to undertake patrols, but more importantly, it reflects the fact that IBAMA agents do not easily accept the sharing of authority with community members.

Community participation

Community participation occurs at many stages throughout the process of designing and implementing fishing agreements. These include:

  • community meetings that look at the local context and consider proposals for fishing agreements,
  • the municipal fishery forum that approves the proposals for fishing agreements,
  • community monitoring of the implementation of fishing agreements and the arapaima management system ,
  • collective action for arapaima management operations (such as guarding the fishing lakes, counting the priarucu in fishing lakes before harvest, harvesting the fish in accordance with the agreement and its quota, weighing and recording the catch),
  • community meetings for the evaluation of fishing agreements and revision of fishing rules.  

Monitoring methodology

The arapaima has unusual characteristics that make it a particularly promising species for community monitoring: it is relatively easy to count due to its huge size and the fact that it surfaces regularly to gulp air, it is primarily sedentary (spending its lifecycle in one area, unlike many Amazonian fish that migrate long distances between the high and low water seasons), and it spawns in floodplain lakes. It is also unusual in that it forms couples to care for offspring.

The methodology for estimating arapaima populations is based on wildlife census techniques (visual counting) and forms the basis for arapaima management plans. This method takes advantage of the biological characteristics of arapaima and the skills and knowledge of the local data collectors, who have a strong understanding of the behaviour of the species, and are able to distinguish adults from juveniles when they rise to the surface (thus ensuring that only adults above the minimum size are considered for harvest). Similar monitoring methods are being used successfully for managed fishing of arapaima in various locations across Amazonia.

Community volunteers from among the local fishers produced an annual plan for monitoring. This involves:

  • the annual survey of arapaima populations in managed lakes,
  • the annual monitoring of lake restoration,
  • daily measurements of fish landing data during the harvest, and forest degradation in managed lakes,
  • annual monitoring of fishing rules and household income.

The ODK form for collecting data on smartphones was used in six target fishing lakes, and community volunteers and local technicians were trained in fishery data monitoring. A group of eleven arapaima fishermen were also trained in arapaima population data collection. They formed management teams to ensure the successful implementation of the arapaima management plans. Whereas before fishermen could only say whether a given lake had more or less arapaima than another lake, now the management teams can make a reliable estimate of the number of adult and juvenile arapaima and the size of the breeding population, and assess the size distribution of the arapaima catch. The teams can also predict how many arapaima can be caught each year without threatening the sustainability of the system, while monitoring progress in restocking the population and periodically revising management rules.

Accuracy of data

Data analysis and validation involves four stakeholder groups: community volunteer data collectors, the management teams described above, the local Fishers’ Union for Feijó, and WWF. Data collected in the field is uploaded every 35-45 days into the Fishery+ data base (held at the Fishers’ Union office). In the run up to this, a monitoring and evaluation meeting is held to assess the quality of data. The data is then displayed in an Excel table to further facilitate analysis. Once it has been approved, the data is then uploaded into the Fishery+ data base.

An evaluation looked at the accuracy of community collected data for six lakes in Feijó. This found that IBAMA has validated the locally collected data on the arapaima populations; IBAMA does this validation when they oversee the annual fish harvest, making sure it is in line with regulations. This complements the way that fishery and ecosystem data is evaluated through community meetings and audits involving professional scientists and local institutions (i.e. the Fishers’ Union).

Although monitoring began in 2008, some early errors meant that the project only has full confidence in its data from 2012, and is therefore currently basing key decisions on the data set from 2012 to 2015. It is hoped that future research in this project will also explore further methodological issues relating to data quality.

Exceptionally high annual floods in the last three years have affected data collection: the rising waters have cut short the period during which the fish can be counted. The floods have also had impacts on the fish populations, creating new challenges, described below.

Digital technology

Community monitoring via mobile data collection used Google’s Open Data Kit (ODK) for designing apps, developing a data sharing protocol, and building a participatory monitoring network. ODK provided a solution for building a data collection process, collecting data on mobile devices, aggregating the collected data, and extracting it into useful formats. The questionnaires on households, lake-forest change, and fishery production were created for Android (Sony) smartphones using the ODK software suite. With the large storage capacity of these devices, community volunteers were able to collect data offline before then transferring it to an online data storage system to be analysed on Microsoft Excel.

The use of digital technology and ODK software helped the project to remove barriers to community-based fishery monitoring. It supported data collection and transmission from remote areas, and improved the participation of community youth members.

Challenges and achievements

The protection of potential fishing lakes began in 2008, and has restored the population density of arapaima to levels suitable for sustainable harvest of fish. Annual arapaima counts and assessments have been successfully conducted. A key factor in the arapaima stock restoration has been an increase in resource control, particularly in terms of the increased knowledge of fishermen and all stakeholders on abundance, distribution and production of arapaima. The establishment of collective fishing agreements has led to improved local livelihoods and strengthened local institutional settings, thus further enhancing local conditions for the management of arapaima.

Arapaima management faces similar challenges to any decentralized governance system, especially with regards to integrating local users into designing the management measures. This initiative approaches this challenge in two ways.

First, the project ensures that community members are involved, not only in meetings and open interactions that enable collective learning, but are also central to monitoring the fish. This provides opportunities for people to use their skills, and ensures that decisions are based on their specific local context, avoiding more ad hoc management techniques (there is a method to establish harvesting quotas using only lake area as an index).

Second, the communities not only collect data, but analyse it and take the decisions themselves - one example is their response to an unexpected reduction in the population growth rates. Despite the initial increase in the fish population, the most recent community data indicate that the arapaima population density has stopped growing. This probably due to the exceptional floods over the last three years, which have enabled adults and juveniles to move from the managed lakes to unmanaged areas (only ten of the 52 lakes in the Envira river basin are managed). In response, the fishermen themselves have decided to apply the precautionary principle and revise the harvesting rules: in 2015 they will only catch 20% of the adults, instead of the usual 30%. The fact that they are now able to analyse information for themselves and take decisions with a view to long term sustainability is itself an achievement for the project. It shows that the communities are implementing adaptive management, feeding real time monitoring findings into their own decision-making.

Future directions of this project may develop complementary research programmes to improve knowledge of the resource, including for a Fishery Improvement Programme (FIP) for MSC certification.  This certification requires robust information about the resource system (the various lakes that maintain a sustainable fish population) and the resource unit: the fish itself (its population structure and density, and biomass). The project is therefore studying migration patterns using mark-recapture and telemetry, and doing research into local markets and processing.


Community view

In this video, Charles Guimarães dos Santos, a fisherman from Feijó, describes their monitoring and management of arapaima and of fishing activities more widely. He explains how smartphones have been key to enabling them to collect a wide variety of information. The video is in Portuguese and is from WWF-Brazil.