Amazon fishers are cashing in on a booming maw industry fuelled by Chinese demand, but the threat of overfishing looms.
Belem, Brazil – It was 7am on a day in late October last year and Belem, a port city in northern Brazil lying on the edge of the Amazon rainforest and about 100km inland from the Atlantic Ocean, was already sweltering hot.
Belem’s Ver-o-Peso open-air market, one of the largest in Latin America, was starting to get crowded with customers who came to buy from the colourful tropical fruits, herbs and vegetables on offer. Nearby, on the river, was the fish market, housed in a 19th-century iron building with high ceilings. Fishmongers had set up fish caught in the Amazon River and the Atlantic, which arrived at dawn. The salty odour of fish – new and old – hung in the humid air. Rows of stalls displayed their wares while sellers skilfully gutted fish as they waited for customers, setting the bones and heads to one side.
While fish is not cheap in Para state, where Belem is the capital, for most people these days it is more affordable than red meat or chicken. The meat stands opposite the fish market are almost all closed, and those that remain get few customers.
Claudio, in his 50s, has been selling seafood for 30 years. He guts and cleans several fish to put on display. He leaves in the maw – the swim bladder, an air-filled organ that controls the fish’s buoyancy in the water. He neatly lays out the fish, their bladders visible. There is still blood surrounding the bladders and their shape is full. Locals won’t eat internal organs, but, he says, “customers see the fresh-looking maw and know the fish is also fresh.”
The acoupa weakfish, however, known locally as the “pescada-amarela” in Portuguese or “yellow croaker” and one of the more expensive fish on sale, has arrived already gutted. Their maw never reaches the market. “It’s been sold long ago,” Claudio says.
Yellow croaker meat sells for 20 reais ($3.55) per kg, he explains. But to his knowledge its maw costs 2,800 reais ($497) per kilogramme.
“Expensive, so expensive,” he says. The minimum monthly wage in Brazil is 1,212 reais ($215). Fish maw from some species aren’t worth a cent, while others sell for exorbitant prices. He looks up from his weighing scale, “They all get sold to China.”
‘Gold in the sea’
A few days later, it is the afternoon in Ajuruteua, a fishing village of about 300 people, located several hundred kilometres north of Belem. A fisher rushes between his boat by the beach and a van where he transfers his catch – hundreds of thousands of small sardines.
He sells sardines for two reais ($0.35) per kg and says bigger boats use them as bait to catch yellow croakers, particularly for their maw. He knows about the sale of maw but has little clue why the Chinese buy them.
One woman in her 60s, whose husband and son were out fishing at sea, explains to us at the village cafe that her family can’t afford the bigger nets needed to catch yellow croaker. If they are ever lucky enough to net one, she says, it is like striking gold because of the high prices they command but also because of the croaker’s attractive shimmer.
“It’s like gold in the sea,” fishers we spoke to said of the yellow croaker.
Ajuruteua’s long, white beach, once packed with fishers using a traditional method to catch fish that involves setting up a trap using thin pieces of wood and snaring the catch when the tide goes out, is now almost empty, waiting for the city folks who come for the weekend. The method, called corrals, no longer works. Fewer fish now come close to shore and many residents have since turned to tourism. For those who still fish, but don’t have the money to invest in a bigger fishing boat or net, yellow croaker “gold” is out of reach.
The yellow croaker, found in abundance on Para’s coast, has only recently become valuable.
The reason is something of a mystery in villages where maw is produced. People we met in Para’s fishing communities shared different theories.
Claudio from the fish market in Belem believes it is used to make perfume, while a female fisher suggests, “maybe it’s for beauty products.” Based on the gelatinous texture of soup made from dried maws, some fishers believe they are used to make glue or plastic.
“When I was a child, I was sure the maw can be made into computer parts,” said a businessman who grew up in a fishing family, thinking of the hefty price tag.
Those familiar with the trade in various fishing villages know that prices differ between maw from male and female fish and that male bladders are more expensive, although they don’t know why. One former fisher thought he had the answer, “Is it an aphrodisiac?”
In China, dried fish maw is widely considered to have medicinal properties, which depend on the species, size, age, sex and origin of the fish. Male fish maw from yellow croakers fetches a higher price because customers believe they swim more in deeper waters and thus have stronger bladders, and therefore better collagen, which is desirable both for its medicinal value and its texture in a soup. Some consumers swear by maw’s medicinal benefits, others see it as a delicacy. As a result, fish maws are sought from around the world.
For fishers on Brazil’s Amazon coast, catching yellow croaker fish maw for export has increasingly become a vital source of income. Some are making a fortune from organs that were previously discarded.
Yet, a lack of fishing regulation could mean that, like any gold rush, this boom could end.
The growing maw market
Many of the fish sold in Belem comes from Vigia, a fishing port that lies 100km (62 miles) to the city’s north. This town of 55,000 residents has a natural harbour and, like Belem, lies on the Marajo Bay, nestled in a river inlet, and sheltered by a densely vegetated island. Boats heading out to sea through the bay soon reach the Atlantic Ocean where freshwater and saltwater meet. This means good fishing.
A historical text from 1830 about the Para region mentions fish maw exports. More than 30 tonnes of fish maw were exported annually between 1874 and 1878 to the US and Europe where it was used to make gelatin and isinglass, to filter wine and beer. Fish maw was sold to China as early as the start of the 20th century, but only in the last decade have quantities and prices rocketed.
Whatever its use, today’s fishers are eager to take advantage of fish maw’s growing market in Brazil and its high prices.
In the quiet village of Itapua near Vigia, the tide has gone out in the early afternoon and Elder Junior’s small wooden fishing boat sits silently on the silt. Junior, 37, smiles as he mends his nets, the shuttle in his hand moving rapidly back and forth sealing the edge of a large fishing net.
He returned from the sea a few days ago. He and three other fishers spent 10 days in a boat less than five metres long. They brought back 40 yellow croakers, a total of 142kg (313 pounds).
It was a good catch. The flesh alone will just cover the cost of fuel. The fish maw is all profit. In other words, going out would be pointless if he couldn’t sell the maw. “When my daughter was young, I used the fish maw to make dolls for her,” Junior says laughing. Of course, he doesn’t do that now.
Junior started fishing when he was 12 years old. The extra income from fish maw, especially when its price started to go up 10 years ago, has made him much more confident about the future. The first time his 10-year-old son set foot on a boat, he got seasick. But Junior is glad, “That means he’ll be happier going to school.”
His family has fished for generations, but he hopes his children will do something else.
Despite the returns, it’s a harder life for Junior than it was for his father, he says, since there are more boats to compete with, including the big ones.
At high tide the following day, a large boat arrives in Vigia after weeks at sea. It unloads hundreds of yellow croakers from the hold – all with the maws removed. From another boat, a bag of dried fish maw of all sizes is swung onto the dock where a car has been waiting. Two young men emerge from the driver’s seat, grab the bag, take a quick look and tuck it into the boot. They ignore our calls for a chat and drive off.
The supply chains between the Amazon and the end market on the other side of the world aren’t complex. The fish maw is often removed from the fish and cleaned and dried while the boat is still at sea. The boat owner then sells the fish maw to buyers — sometimes directly to the exporters, but more often to the first in a series of traders.
The exporter then ships the fish maw to Hong Kong by air or by sea. Brazil’s fish maw producers say Hong Kong is both a consumer and a re-exporter of fish maw. Much of it is smuggled into mainland China, where the various food safety-related permissions that are needed are an obstacle to direct exports.
Most of the profit in Brazil goes to the traders and exporters. A local researcher who would only speak on the condition of anonymity due to fears that being associated with investigations into the trade would affect their own work, said, due to the huge profits, people in the trade do not like to speak about it and very little is known of this growing market.
Traders carry plenty of cash and so keep a low profile. Robberies have targeted traders. In interviews, we were told that some export companies fit the vehicles transporting fish maw with bulletproof glass and that Chinese merchants have been targeted by local criminal gangs.
Insiders tend to be quiet. But for an industry that has kept a low profile, in recent years it is no longer conspicuous, with hundreds of people in the trade, according to Marcius Santos, a partner in a firm exporting fish maw who agreed to talk to us.
Boom brings fierce competition
Marcius Santos, a confident man with a square, boyish face, doesn’t look his 46 years. Eating fish maw keeps him young, he jokes.
This local trader hails from a fishing family and started trading fish in his 20s. In 2018, he teamed up with Huang Wei, a Chinese businessman from Jiangmen in Guangdong province, to export fish maw.
In Braganca, a town on the Atlantic coast of northern Para, Huang opens the company’s warehouse, a small room behind a locked door in their cleaning and drying facility. It smells like a fish market.
Fish maw of all shapes and sizes, cleaned and dried, sit in sacks waiting to be flown to Hong Kong. “These are small ones, a few centimetres in size,” says Huang. He takes a handful of maw that look like plastic, brown leaves from one side of the room, saying, “They come from the south of Brazil and cost a bit over 100 reais per kg ($17.70).”
These are some of the cheapest prices for fish maw, he says. “Restaurants in China buy these in large quantities to make stock.”
Yet, larger sizes do not mean higher prices. Huang picks up maws of 30 to 50 centimetres (11.8 -19.6 inches) in length. “Those big ones are from gurijuba (a kind of catfish) fish. They’re big but cheap, and don’t get a good price.”
Outside, a truck pulls up and unloads several sacks of yellow croaker maws. Huang takes two out, each one tens of centimetres in size. He knocks them together to judge if they are dry or not. “They should be transparent and not greasy,” he says. These are good ones.
The company has a quality controller who sorts the fish maw according to market demand. Size and shape are important, but the species is the real price determinant. The most expensive of all in this region is the yellow croaker’s maw.
Sustainability an issue for all
At a free wifi spot built by the local government by the river in the centre of Vigia, people stop to enjoy the shade and the connectivity. When fish merchants, sellers of fishing gear and ice, boat captains and fishers, and drivers and guards sit together, fishing is what they discuss.
“There are more boats, so fish are getting cleverer,” says Silvio Sardinha, a boat captain, referring to how he caught little on his last 20-day trip. He mostly fishes for yellow croakers.
Something else to catch
Near Vigia, Junior holds generations of fishing knowledge in his head. There are more boats now – and more pirates, sometimes violent, lured by the expensive fishing gear and valuable catches like fish maw.
It’s risky to go out to sea alone or put new fishing gear on board. Nor have the tides been right lately. “But wait for the moon to come out,” he says, referring to a good time for fishing, as he fixes a net. “We will hear the yellow croaker croaking.”
After the midday siesta, the village of Itapua starts to stir, having escaped the harshest of the daytime humidity and heat. Someone joins Junior to sort out the net and points at the mangrove swamp. If the fish maw trade ends, they say they can catch crabs.
Those who grew up here know that if you stick an arm into the muddy swamp and wait a few minutes – it will come out covered in crabs. Another fisher laughs at the idea: “You get one real for a crab ($0.18). One hundred crabs, 100 reais. Can you get a 100 in a day? Even if you do, it’s still not enough to feed a family!”
Everyone shakes their head, saying things will be OK. There will be something else to catch in the sea.
Culled from Aljazeera