Fake News, Fake Fish

Fake News, Fake Fish The Pantanal region in central South America. Image: NASA

Fake news is one of today’s buzzwords, especially in politics where fake news has been dominating the media. It appears that this trend has now been exposed all over, including in conservation of marine and other natural resources. Reports that local people are destroying the environment are in most cases fake news. Fake news is proliferating and is now present everywhere, to a degree that some people suggest that we live now in a post-truth era.‬

Rafael Morais Chiaravalloti had served as a conservationist in the Pantanal, Brazil. The first thing he heard about the area was that it was overfished and that the Paraguay River was even known as the ‘empty river’.

Innocents such as young biologists were encouraged to believe that the river's fish had been fished out by local people.

This opinion was widely accepted and the authorities in charge enforced measures to protect the fish. Local fishermen were allowed only to use hook-and-line gear. Fishing quotas were reduced, and the minimum landing sizes were fixed. However, young Chiaravalotti after working a few years in the region and learning the ways of its people and fish realised that the whole idea of overfishing was being spread mainly by sport fishing tourist companies who suffered from drops in the number of people coming to the Pantanal (from ~50,000 in the 1990s to 10,000 in the 2010s). They were claiming that the diminishing of tourism was due to overfishing caused by local fishermen. At this stage there was no study showing the contrary, and thus such ‘fake news’ found a fertile ground to spread.

Recently he published a paper in Conservation and Society showing that the alleged overfishing in the Pantanal is in fact a myth. First he deconstructed the claimed overfishing supposedly caused by local people in the Pantanal, and using multidimensional regression showed that the drop in tourist numbers are in fact due to policy changes. In other words, when the authorities started to force local people to stop fishing, they extended some enforcement measures to tourists. Therefore, visitors equally faced an increase in the minimum fish size they could capture and decrease in the fish quota they could take home. Since the government had restricted leisure fishing, fewer tourists came to the Pantanal and less lower yields were reported. Thus, the vicious circle commenced.

Hence, according to Chiaravalloti, there is no scientific evidence of overfishing in the Pantanal but rather the policy of limiting the fishing itself caused diminished fish yields. The few relevant studies show no sign of fish depletion.

In addition, Chiaravalloti's study has uncovered the details of the mechanisms by which local Brazilian fishermen manage fish resources co-operatively and sustainably. Since fishermen continually check whether new spots are worth fishing, most fishermen stay at their present fishing site, while a few try new areas. Whoever finds a better spot tells the others, who move there. This, mutually supportive procedure is constantly repeated during the fishing season. Throughout the year, this process creates a rotational fishing system.

People tend to not hide such information, establishing a scheme of reciprocity. However, the openness showed by members towards co-residents does not extend to outsiders. Fishermen are very clear about boundaries that groups from other settlements need to respect. There is a general acceptance of territoriality.

Finally, changes in connectivity between areas, through river channel changes or floating vegetation blocking off passages, are factored into people’s livelihood adaptations. Every year a set of bays and lakes are available to be used by fishermen. The closing of bays and river channel entrances by floating vegetation mats can turn water bodies into natural refuges for many aquatic species. Local fishermen’s adaptive strategies of reciprocity and territoriality, alongside the biophysical restrictions, are likely to create a sustainable use of their natural resources, very different from what was portrayed by policy makers and tourist companies.

Chiaravalloti doubts that policymakers and owners of tourist companies would read his paper and most probably every time he returns, he'll hear the same story of overfishing. Only this time, he wrote, there's enough scientific evidence to discredit fake news in the Pantanal. Most of this information has been delivered to local NGOs and prosecutors, and, consequently, some supportive measures for local people have now been put into practice.

Fighting ‘fake news’ has also brought up, incidentally, the subject of ‘fake fish’. This, perhaps, because some, though not all, of the news about fake fish seem to be fake.

A recent US study says that plenty of fake fish are found on shelves and restaurant tables across north America, and most probably also elsewhere, and the practice of replacing cheaper species of fish for more expensive and desirable ones routinely goes on at retail fish markets, in restaurants and especially in sushi places. For example, cheap Asian pangasius is frequently passed off as everything from catfish to sole to flounder to grouper.

This fish is also marketed under the names tra & swai (Pangasius hypothalamous). The other trade name that has come to life recently is panga that typically refers to Pangasius pangasius. The only ‘true’ basa fish is Pangasius bocourti.

The average US consumer has probably never even heard of the terms basa, swai, tra, or ponga. This is largely due to the fact that distributors buy this product from other distributors and importers, then turn sell it to end users as grouper or catfish – plus there is the parallel issue of these ‘other’ fish may be produced using dubious chemicals and antibiotics.

Although it is taxonomically a catfish, it is definitely not the same species as domestic US channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). They may be similar, but definitely not the same.

Many people in southeast US would be shocked at how many fried grouper sandwiches they have consumed in the past year were actually of one of these Pangasius species.

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