Catch me if you can: How the paiche plague in Bolivias Amazon is making its way onto menus

This air-breathing aquatic monster has become far too comfortable in Bolivian waters. But, one chef is helping curb the problem by serving it on her native Bolivian menu, making it a useful ingredient and helping to rebalance the biodiversity too, finds Sorrel Moseley-Williams

November 2018

t’s a suffocating afternoon in Carmen del Emero, Bolivia, but Nelo Yarari Alipaz is oblivious to the humidity and relentless buzzing. The community leader of this remote village in Bolivia’s Amazon – accessible only by a nine-hour boat ride – is ready to talk business with one of Bolivia’s top chefs, Marsia Taha, who runs Gustu restaurant in the capital La Paz.

But before they converse, Alipaz (known as Don Nelo to everyone) shares his goals. “We live sustainably, raising chickens and pigs, catching fish and harvesting wild cacao but we need an income to pay for phone lines and provide internet for the school. Actually, I feel like we’re losers compared with other communities along the river but the truth is, we don’t want donations: we want to work and sell products sourced from our environment to Gustu and other restaurants.”

Home to around 65 families from the Tacana indigenous community, Carmen del Emero’s location on the Beni river has always assured the community a wealth of edible riches such as surubí, pintado (both types of catfish) and pacu (freshwater fish related to the piranha), fish they either consume or sell at market in Rurrenabaque, the gateway town to Bolivia’s Amazon.

But a new species has been causing a stir in the cola-coloured waters – and both Don Nelo and Taha of Gustu are keen to strike a deal. Thecorregidor is keen to ensure a new source of income for his people while the chef wants a regular supply of native ingredients for her strictly Bolivian menu. The paiche plague could be the answer.

Although native to the Amazon basin, paiche (Arapaima gigas, also known as pirarucu) is a recent addition to Bolivia’s lakes and rivers. According to Omar Torrico, who is responsible for monitoring conservation and climate change management for the Wildlife Conservation Society – the NGO that has brought Gustu and Carmen del Emero together for this initial business meeting – this obligate air-breather is a predator that’s made itself way too comfortable in Bolivia.

“In the 1980s, flooding in neighbouring Peru led this freshwater fish to escape into the north of the country. But it only came to the attention of Carmen del Emeros fishermen about four years ago,” he says.

One of the world’s largest freshwater fish, the omnivorous paiche easily grows to 2.5m (though it can reach four) in length and 150kg. Given the lack of aquatic competition in Bolivia’s waters, it gobbles down catfish, crustaceans and small fish such as piranha, basically anything that crosses its path.

“It’s been very successful colonising our waters,” adds Torrico. Paiche is also smart: this predator is always looking for food, knows how to avoid nets and traps, and when it does get entangled can often perform an escape routine Houdini would be proud of. Oh, and akin to an Amazonian Jaws, paiche also stalk small boats...

That same sweltering afternoon, Chef Taha and I hike through the jungle to the tune of an Amazonian avian chorus, rubber boots slopping through the muddy trail, to climb into a wobbly peque, a canoe carved from a tree trunk that’s prone to letting in water, with fisherman Walter Yarari Alipaz. He guides us through the murky waters of Motocuzal lake and within minutes, paiche start vigorously leaping about. Catch me if you can, they seem to be saying...

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