Amazon River dolphins - Brazil

A new and serious threat to botos (Amazon river dolphins) has emerged; they are illegally hunted for fish bait in Brazil. Hunters use hand-held harpoons, spears, machetes and clubs to capture and kill botos; fishermen use boto meat as bait to catch a carnivorous catfish called 'piracatinga'. The boto meat is placed inside slatted wooden crates and lowered into the water. Large numbers of piracatinga fish are attracted to the rotting meat can be rapidly caught by fishermen. It is illegal to kill botos in Brazil, but large areas of the Amazon are remote and law enforcement is poor. Fishermen are increasingly turning to piracatinga fishing as it is common in the Amazon and easily caught in large numbers.

Sixty percent of the Amazon rainforest is within Brazil and so Brazil is home to more Amazon river dolphins (botos) than any other South American country.  Botos live in the rivers and lakes of the Amazon and enter the flooded forest during high water season. The Amazon, and particularly the flooded forest, are threatened habitats. Since the 1980s the rate of deforestation and exploitation of the Amazon Rainforest for mining, logging, human settlement and cattle ranching has increased significantly. These commercial activities pose a severe threat to the region's indigenous people and wildlife.  

Amazon rainforest communities are concentrated along the margins of rivers and lakes; in the absence of roads people use the natural waterways, moving around using wooden canoes and boats with outboard engines. Their economy is of subsistence, based on fishing and agriculture. Fishing is definitely the most important income-generating and cultural activity amongst local communities.  Botos are fish-eaters, and this brings them into direct conflict with people; botos are not well-loved by Amazon fishermen!  Angry fishermen lash out, injure, or even kill botos they believe are stealing fish or damaging their nets. In addition to deliberate killing, botos are also threatened by accidental entanglement and drowning in fishing nets, boat traffic, pollution and climate change. 

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Deliberate Killing

Deliberate killing of botos for fish bait is thought to have started around the year 2000 in Brazil. Despite being illegal, the practice is thought to be spreading - simply from fisherman to fisherman.  Boto meat is used as bait to catch an Amazon catfish called 'piracatinga' (or 'mota' as it is known in Colombia). Piracatinga is a carnivorous fish and is attracted in large numbers to any dead animal carcass in the river.  Fishermen have found that boto meat (and also caiman meat) is a very effective bait for piracatinga and attracts the fish in large numbers. Wild animal bait has gained in popularity as it is freely available in the wild and very accessible for fishing communities living on or close to the river bank. Boto flesh is considered a good quality bait as it has a frim consistency and is fatty; it is possible to catch more fish in a shorter period of time than other baits.

Piracatinga is not a favoured source of food in Brazil because these fish eat dead, rotting animals and even people if they have drowned in the river. Most of the piracatinga catch is exported and there is an expanding international market; Colombia is the main consumer. It is imported into Colombia to replace a once popular fish called 'capaz' (which tastes similar). Capaz was abundant in Colombia's Magdelena River, but overfishing caused the fishery to collapse. Nowadays, piracatinga is imported from Brazil and sold disguised as capaz in supermarkets. People in the cities of Colombia have no idea that they are buying and eating piracatinga, a fish caught using boto bait.

Poor law enforcement and the sheer scale of the Brazilian Amazon coupled with the demand for the fish in Colombia has fuelled the hunt for botos. Botos (and also wild caiman) provide the fishermen with a tempting convenient and cheap supply of bait.  If boto hunting is allowed to continue unchecked, it has the potential to seriously threaten the future of boto populations.

Moreover, the boto hunt is very cruel. Each and every dolphin killed suffers a horrific and painful death. There is evidence that some captured botos are not killed immediately, but tethered to trees using rope around their tail flukes - until the meat is required for fresh bait.  Fishermen, or hunters (who subsequently sell the botos to fishermen) usually hunt during the night to avoid drawing attention to their illegal activity.  They throw hand-held harpoons (or spears) to injure the boto and stop it swimming away; clubs and machetes are then used to kill the boto. Each boto clearly suffers a violent and painful death. Pieces of boto meat are then placed inside a purpose-built, large, slatted, wooden crate. The crate is lowered into the water, close to the river bank and the rotting dolphin meat attracts large numbers of piracatinga; the fish swim into the wooden crate, through gaps between the wooden slats. The fish are then be caught by the waiting fishermen who often risk getting bitten by standing on top of the crate or nearby it and catch the fish with their bare hands. 

The fishermen sell their piracatinga catches to traders who use freezer boats to transport it to the Brazil-Colombia border. The fishermen do not need to travel to town themselves to sell the fish - traders come to collect it and freeze it. Huge volumes of the fish leave Brazil without official controls and checks in place.

 Fisherman catching piracatinga fish


WDC Action

WDC is supporting local groups in Brazil working to stop the hunting of botos for bait. We are supporting Brazilian projects in two seperate locations in the Amazon. The first is in a rural region, close to the city of Santarem, in the western Brazilian state of Para. The communities are mostly inhabited by caboclos, people with a mixed white and indigenous heritage. Most small-scale fishing in the western Brazilian Amazon employs the caboclo traditional knowledge of fish species, and uses traditional fishing gear; it is a culturally important activity.

WDC is supporting a range of environmental education work in the communities and gathering information about boto killings, and the fishermen involved. The project team also have plans to test some alternative baits to attract piracatinga - including some based on synthetic materials. If a synthetic bait could be manufactured and distributed to fishermen, they would not be tempted to kill botos.

The project team is led by Dr Miguel Migueis, based at the University of Para, they are talking regularly with community leaders and others to discuss the impact of hunting on the botos and the environment as a whole. Emphasis on careful management of natural resources for future generations is important.  It is hoped that some members of the community might be persuaded to become guardians of dolphins in the longer term.  The guardians will be able to influence and help the community and promote legal, traditional fishing techniques and active wildlife protection. They will also be looking for, and recording additional evidence of boto killing in communities.

The second group are working in the State of Amazonas, the programme leader by Dr Miriam Marmontel ( Amazonian Aquatic Mammal Research Group (GPMAA) and WDC is working closely with Veronica Iriarte who coordinates and manages the boto-piracatinga project in the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Institute (IDSM).  Commercial industrial activity is forbidden within the Mamiraua Reserve. But the area is home to a large number of fishing communities; including those fishing for piracatinga. This project monitors these communities fishing activity, records the presence of the wooden crates deployed by fishermen and collects evidence of bait used. This information is extremely important to generate accurate information about the scale of the problem in the area and to work out the most effective ways of phasing out the use of boto meat of bait through a well researched management plan for the Reserve. 


 wooden crate used to catch piracatinga using botos meat 

Veronica Iriarte and the team are collecting information on the interactions - including accidental captures, deliberate killing and competition for fish resources - between river dolphins and local people, with a view to finding ways to reduce these losses.