Since the early 1950's, extraction of tropical fishes has occurred from the Rio Negro (a main tributary to the Amazon River). This extraction provides 80% of the income for the residents of Barcelos (representing an area over a thousand square miles) accounting for the majority of the cardinal tetras and many other "wild-caught" Amazonian species key to the multi-billion dollar tropical fish industry world-wide. Research has shown that this extraction is sustainable biologically and supports significant human populations in terms of their resource and development.
Efforts since 1989 coordinated by Dr. Ning Labbish Chao in conjunction with collaborators and students of the Universidade do Amazonas, INPA (National Institute of Amazon Research), IBAMA (Brazilian environmental protection agency), local fish collectors, exporters and politicians with the periphery aids of severalBrazilian and international agencies including some public aquariums have led to an in-depth study of this important field conservation effort.
It was not difficult to realize that the ornamental fish trade ties the livelihood of local fisherfolk and the fate of Amazon ecosystem with the tropical fish hobbyists worldwide. In order to preserve the diversity of the floodplain fishes and well being of the fisherfolk, Project Piaba was proposed to explore issues beyond the biological science.
With the initial funding from Dr. Herbert and Mrs. Evelyn Axelrod Foundation and TFH Publications, the one-room Dr. H. R. Axelrod Ornamental Fish Laboratory was first established in 1994, then upgraded to the "Center for Aquatic Conservation" in Barcelos. The center has a live fish exhibition (public aquarium), a laboratory and classroom for science education, and dormitories for visiting investigators. The Center has served as a base of operations for the Project Piaba team. From this Center we have organized short courses on aquatic sciences for teachers, sponsored essay and drawing contests for children, and obtained professional license for 300 ornamental fish collectors.
More than 40 local students have received scholarships from Project Piaba, and dozens of college students from Southern Brazil, North America and Europe have volunteered to work at the center. Since 1991, the annual expeditions with fish hobbyists (organized by Scott Dowd of New England Aquarium) have brought over 200 ecotourists to the region.
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