With Citizen Science for the Amazon, these fishers have become frontline researchers.
When William Vela finishes a night of fishing and returns home to Santa Isidora, his village on the central Peruvian Amazon’s Azupizu River, he doesn’t pick up his gutting knife right away. First, he grabs his cell phone and types in details—how many fish he landed, what kind, and where he caught them, along with each one’s size and weight.
Vela is among several hundred fishers in five Amazonian countries who use their mobile phones and an app called Ictio to report their catches as part of an ambitious citizen-science project. Santa Isidora has no cell service, but on periodic visits to Puerto Bermúdez, a few hours away by river, Vela uploads his information to the project’s database. In many Amazon communities, residents not only have gleaned knowledge from generations of fishing, but also have drafted local management plans as fish stocks have fallen. Armed with Ictio, they can further bridge traditional and modern learning by partnering with scientists and fishers elsewhere to better steward local fisheries.
Called Citizen Science for the Amazon, the project involves scientists from over 30 universities, nonprofit groups and public agencies, and is funded by the U.S.-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Participating institutions are located not only in the five Amazon countries where the data is being collected—Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia—but also in France, Germany and the United States. Organizers hope that by combining catch information with data on weather and river conditions, they can answer questions about Amazonian fish migration. A prime one is how environmental conditions—and, more specifically, climate change—affect migrations. “This is a way to try to use conservation technologies to answer the big question of where and when do fish migrate and what are the water conditions associated with that,” says Elizabeth Anderson, a freshwater conservation ecologist at Florida International University and one of six members of the project’s management committee.
As Amazonian rivers rise and fall with annual rains, fish swim through flooded forests to spawn in lakes cut off from the main rivers during the rest of the year. The dorado (Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii), a giant catfish, travels 11,600 kilometers (7,208 miles) from the mouth of the Amazon to the Andes foothills. Other fish migrations are shorter. But because the Amazon basin is so big, scientists have trouble gathering enough data to parse migration patterns. Project information is being consolidated in a database available to scientists, planners and fishers themselves, who can use it to monitor their communal fisheries.
App for fish data
The project began in 2017, and pilot testing of Ictio, the mobile phone app undergirding it, was conducted from April 2018 to June 2019. Data-gathering involved 15 fishers’ associations and nonprofit groups working with fishing communities in the five Amazon nations, with participants in most cases already involved in community fishery management. In Peru, Vela and monitors in other communities near Puerto Bermúdez have worked with the Lima-based nonprofit Instituto del Bien Común (IBC) for nearly a decade to manage their fisheries.
Older Amazon residents remember when the thrashing of migrating fish turned rivers white. Over the years, commercial fishing, the use of dynamite in fishing and riverbank erosion from deforestation drove down fish stocks, says Alex Bottger, who coordinates the IBC office in Puerto Bermúdez. But communities like Vela’s turned away outside commercial fishers, prohibited use of dynamite and required minimum net-mesh sizes to spare juvenile fish. They also began gathering catch data of the kind they now record on phones.
The Ictio app is modeled on eBird, an app developed by ornithologists at Cornell University that allows birdwatchers to record details of sightings in a common database. Millions of eBird entries have enabled scientists to observe changes in bird migration over time. The same developers tackled Amazonian fish-migration; but while the principle is the same, the devil is in the details. Well-heeled birdwatchers often travel where they can spot many birds or certain rare species, giving the database remarkable geographic reach. In contrast, fishers may report more data over time, but from a very local area. Birdwatchers also use the scientific names of species, while fishers typically use common names, which may vary between—or even within—countries. The app makes identification more consistent by using photos, but the number of fish photos is still limited.
Recording river and climate conditions has also posed challenges due to the scale and dynamism of the ecosystems being monitored. “A lot of times when we think about river monitoring, we think about small rivers, 20 or 30 meters across, with stable banks,” says Paulo Olivas, a research associate at the Florida International University GIS Center in Miami. Amazonian rivers, however, can rise by 10 meters or more during the rainy season, their swift currents sweeping massive tree trunks downstream. Anchoring and protecting monitoring equipment is difficult—especially at the confluences of rivers, where scientists seek data that could help them understand why fish migrate along one channel and not the other, he says.
Though still limited in scope, the project is demonstrating technology can be a conservation tool even in remote, off-grid Amazon communities, says Mariana Varese, Amazon program director in Peru for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Organizers are also learning to balance the requirements of basin-wide scientific research with the needs of local fishing communities, she says. The Ictio database will allow each group of fishers to see all the data they have entered, but will be selective in displaying information from other groups to safeguard local fishing grounds. This will still enable scientists to analyze trends, she says.
Fishers assisting the study are curious about fish-name variations, the different species being caught and how other groups organize their fishing, says Vanessa Eyng, who coordinated field work in Tefé, Brazil, for the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development. The Institute, a public research and extension center, also drew schools into the project, further spurring community knowledge and curiosity. Says Florida International University’s Anderson: “Most people have loads of scientific questions about how these systems work, and their own hypotheses. Folks are thinking about it all the time. I think that often is not recognized explicitly by the scientific community.”
- Barbara Fraser
The project suggests technology can be a useful conservation tool even in off-grid areas of the Amazon. (Photo by Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development)