Last week, I journeyed to Peru with two friends of the National Aquarium, Chef Xavier Deshayes and Kelly Morris, in search of the South American Arapaima gigas, a behemoth of a fish that lives in the Amazon. As the largest freshwater fish in the world, this giant can reach a maximum size of 2 meters and 200 kg.
My journey took me some 4,268 miles from the Aquarium in Baltimore, MD, to Newark, NJ, to Lima, Peru, and finally to Yurimaguas, a remote village on the banks of the Huallaga River, part of the Amazon River Basin. Transportation along the way included planes, buses, cars, and rickshaws.
The fish we were there to see is the Arapaima, commonly known as paiche, an apex predator in the Amazon. The paiche belongs to a group of fish called bony tongues, and is the largest of the seven types of bony tongues worldwide (there are three in Australia, one in Africa, and three in South America).
The paiche is unique in many ways. It is a fossil record—this fish dates back to more than 65 million years unchanged by evolution. And it breathes air! The paiche must surface every 15–20 minutes to gulp air, which it processes in its swim bladder to extract its oxygen needs. The paiche is also a buccal incubator, which means that after the female lays eggs and they hatch, the male picks up and keeps the babies in his mouth for the first 4–6 weeks while they grow.
Paiche is revered as a local delicacy. The fish flesh is white, thick, and tender. It is high in collagen and is therefore great for grilling, searing, and frying. Although illegal to fish in Peru, paiche is still hunted by the river villagers. Villagers claim that the flesh of the paiche is better than beef.
The local wild paiche is now on the endangered species list because of overfishing. Farming the paiche not only creates a profitable export product, but also creates jobs, provides a food source for the local people, and relieves hunting pressure on local wild paiche populations. It also allows the seeding of natural habitats with captive-raised specimens to assure the growth of the wild populations.
The farm we visited has more than 130 ponds holding more than 100,000 paiches each, including 100 adult breeding pairs.
The farm feeds these fish organic foods made from bycatch squid with no chemical additives. The adult fish reproduce in captivity without the aid of hormones or any chemical manipulation.
The fish produced here are harvested at 18 months of age, when they are about 1 meter long. They are caught in seine nets and taken to a processing plant nearby where they are processed and frozen. Almost none of the fish is wasted. Besides the flesh of the fish, the heads are skeletonized and used for museum and educational artifacts, the scales are used for nail files, and the bony tongues for medicinal purposes. The fish produced here is exported to Europe and the United States.
So why did we travel all this way to see a fish farm? Today’s food needs are putting a lot of pressure on our natural resources, forcing environment degradation and species extirpation and extinction, sometimes resulting in an ecosystem collapse. The National Aquarium hosts Fresh Thoughts Sustainable Seafood events at both our Baltimore and Washington, DC, venues. The Fresh Thoughts initiative looks at resource sustainability, and presents sustainable seafood alternatives to our guests. If individual consumers support sustainable seafood choices, we can make a difference in fish populations and the health of our oceans worldwide.
Chef Xavier, executive chef at the Ronald Reagan Building, creates the menus for the Washington, DC, Fresh Thoughts events. To advance the Aquarium’s Fresh Thoughts initiative, Chef Xavier asked that I accompany him to Peru to see firsthand the sustainable aquaculture of this fish.
Although the farm is productive, shows green potential and is sustainable, as an Aquarium curator, I was more impressed with the breeding and husbandry success of this species and the scale to which it is done. I look forward to exploring similar sustainable aquaculture!
You can taste the results of this journey for yourself at the Fresh Thoughts dinner on Wednesday, April 25, when Chef Xavier will serve up delicious paiche. Learn more and make a reservation here.