The Paiche Hunter

This is Part IX of New Worlder’s first series: Food & The Amazon Rainforest, which explores the relationships and possibilities surrounding food in one of the most diverse and vulnerable ecosystems on Earth.

Santiago Alves was a paiche hunter. Also called pirarucu in other parts of the region, paiche (arapaima gigas) is the world’s second largest freshwater fish after the Beluga Sturgeon and it lives in the shallow, muddy waters of riverbeds in the Amazon basin. Marine scientists consider the paiche to be a direct link to the Miocene epoch millions of years ago and it has a bone structure unlike any other fish you will find, which makes breaking down an entire paiche in the kitchen (which is rare anyway) incredibly difficult.

Traditionally, Amazonian communities usually salt and sun-dry paiche flesh, like bacalao, which can be taken into the forest or rolled up and shopped to markets. It gets chopped up and steamed inside of a bijao leaf with rice or yuca for juanes, or gets re-hydrated in stews. It’s bony tongue is often used for grating guaraná that’s then mixed with water to kill intestinal worms, while the scales can be used as nail files.

The flavor of the firm, white-fleshed fish is similar to Chilean sea bass or halibut. It contains high levels of collagen, which helps it develop a nice crust when it is cooked and it has no traces of mercury or other heavy metals commonly found in fish of comparable size. Every 100 grams of meat provides 20 grams of protein. Once word got out, paiche was an easy sell.

In Peru’s Pacaya Samiria reserve, Alves and other fishermen would take pull out 100 to 120 paiche a night. Up to three meters in length and 250 kilograms in weight, paiche need to come up for air every 15-20 minutes, making them easy to catch with a net or harpoon. The fishermen would remove the filets and toss out the rest. There were bans on paiche fishing, but they were ignored. It seemed as if there was enough paiche to go around forever, until there wasn’t.

“It’s the sad reality of our life,” he told me. “No one respected the bans, they killed at will.”

Hunters like him would export paiche by other names to avoid fines. Just as a real market began to appear for paiche, the fish began to disappear from Amazonian waterways in the 1970s.

The paiche is a predator, eating smaller fish and crustaceans. While it may seem counter intuitive, predators are an important part of a healthy ecosystem, particularly one as complex as the Amazon basin with around 2,200 fish, not to mention countless crustaceans, reptiles, amphibians, insects, mammals, and aquatic plants. The predators exploit prey species by eating the old, injured, and sick, which leaves more food for other animals and encourages healthier prey populations as only the fittest animals are left to reproduce. Without paiche in Amazonian waterways, the entire food chain is threatened.

When there were too few paiche in the wild, Alves turned to aquaculture out of necessity. In the 1980s, he began farm raising paiche outside of Iquitos. Everyone thought he was crazy to try and breed these enormous fish in captivity. His low impact farm, called Piscigranja Arapaima Gigas, now covers 18 hectares and encompasses several large lakes filled with thousands of paiche, as well as zarapatera, a prehistoric looking turtle species. Capybaras and peccaries scuttle about along the shorelines, and a tapir is kept in a large enclosure in the back of the property.

On weekends Alves opens his pavilion beside the lakes to the public, cooking the critters he raises over wood fire grills. The 20 kilo zarapatera are cut up and its meat and blood is cooked in the shell with sachaculantro and ají charapita. The paiche, butchered just after being pulled from the water tastes like a different fish altogether. The meat, with blood still in its veins, is richer and tastier than the frozen fillets served in most places. It’s more black cod than sea bass.

Alves was the first to begin exporting the fish to Asia and now ships paiche around the world. He claims to sells 6,000 kilos of paiche a month, though with investment he thinks he could sell 100,000 kilos. He owns 11 million hectares of land along the Río Tigre and says he could repopulate the entire Amazon with paiche if the government support him.

Alves claims that he was one of the biggest predators in the Amazon. He grew up hunting whatever he saw and he chopping down the tallest trees for wood. There were no laws against it. He was the worse of the worst. He knows that now.

Inadvertently, Alves has become a symbol for the conservation of the species. Farmed paiche has taken pressure off of wild populations. More and consumers within Peru and elsewhere in the Amazon are aware of the threats to wild paiche, and demands for more transparency have helped allow NGOs to move in and help manage the fisheries. In parts of the Peruvian Amazon where paiche have been MIA for decades, they are now flourishing.

“Salvemos el hambre del mundo,” Alves says. We can save the hunger of the world.

Farm raised paiche has become a surprising success. While other fish of this size cannot be farm raised, paiche naturally live in Amazonian lagoons, an environment that can be replicated with large freshwater ponds. There are now several dozen paiche aquaculture projects in Peru and communities in other parts of the Amazon, such as the Cofán in Ecuador, have followed their lead.

A large aquaculture project called Amazone based in Yurimaguas, and backed by Peruvian mining and cement conglomerate the Hochschild Group, began pushing paiche on the export market in 2010. They have found success exporting to niche markets like restaurants and high-end retailers that were seeking sustainable seafood. They focused on 100% product trace-ability and environmentally friendly aquaculture practices, partnering with sustainable seafood supplier Artisan Fish. Soon their paiche from the Peruvian Amazon began appearing in Peruvian restaurants and Whole Foods locations around the US.

“During the last 5 years, 90% of our production was exported and around 10% was sold here in Peru,” says Isaac Gherson, who manages Acuicola Los Paiches S.A.C., the aquaculture project in Yurimaguas.

Exports of Peruvian paiche hit a peak of $2.06 million in 2013, according to ADEX Data Trade, though  fell the following year when some producers left an over-saturated market. Exports are now back on the rise, with the United States and Hong Kong accounting for the majority of sales.

“We expect that in 2017, Whole Foods Market will sell double the amount of paiche as when we first launched the fish in our stores in 2013,” according to McKinzey Crossland, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods. “It’s offered in all our stores, though supply will vary and it may not always be in stock at all times.”

With an attractive price at around $16 a pound, roughly half as much as Chilean sea bass, the biggest challenge has been marketing paiche to a public that knows nothing about it. Consumers were unaware how to cook the fish when it was introduced, so Whole Foods has been sharing recipes and videos about cooking paiche on their website.

Biologist Miguel Tang, of the NGO Association of Amazonians for the Amazon (AMPA), has been working to make Amazonian fisheries more efficient for more than a decade. From 1994 to 2013, the collective focus was on conservation and recuperation of paiche throughout the Peruvian Amazon. In wild fisheries they enacted quotas, bans, and size limits of 2.5 meters or larger.

By 2014, the collective focus shifted to equipping communities to help make paiche a premium product. They have investigated cutting the costs of farm raising paiche, which is high. One solution has been to find solutions through natural elements in the region rather than import them from the coast. Another has been concentrating on younger fish, averaging 10-12 kilos in size, which take less resources to produce and are more efficient for the export market. Wholesale prices for paiche used to be around $3 per kilo. Now they are $8 per kilo.

One issue for artisanal farmers has been transport. With the tropical heat of the Amazon and the size of adult paiche, moving an adult fish in the slow-moving ways of the Amazon to a place it can be processed efficiently is almost impossible. Two processing centers in Iquitos and Pucallpa, which should be ready by May, will help.

“Refrigeration adds another dynamic,” says Tang.

Value added products like smoked paiche, much liked smoked trout or salmon, are being explored as well. Since 2015, whole sustainably raised paiche has been sent whole to Lima restaurants, an experimental program that is testing the market. Amazone is sending juvenile (less than one year in age) farm-raised paiche to Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s Miraflores restaurant ámaZ at regular intervals. The fish weigh between four to six kilos each, which is small as far as paiche go, yet they can be easily transported and maintain the same quality as the paiche you would taste at Piscigranja Arapaima Gigas.

It has given new momentum to using paiche in Lima’s restaurants, where the fish has seemingly faded from menus after an early surge. At ámaZ, Schiaffino now serves paiche like a steak, with bone still in the center. It’s fattier and more flavorful than the paiche you have had before and comes with a side of farofa. They also sevre it grilled with aguaje purée and chorizo sauce.

“When things are introduced to the market, they aren’t always in their best form,” Schiaffino says. “This is the next step.”