Giant, enduring rainforest fish is now all the rage in America

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The pirarucu leather Mac Pack is displayed in the Piper & Skye showroom on Tuesday, October 25, 2022, in New York City. In New York, luxury brand Piper & Skye used pirarucu leather for shoulder bags, fanny packs and handbags priced up to $850. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

Sometimes you start something not knowing where it will take you. So it was with Eduardo Filgueiras, a struggling guitarist whose family worked in an unusual business in Rio de Janeiro: they raised toads. Filgueiras found a way to take the little toad skins and fuse them together, creating something big enough to sell.

Meanwhile, miles away in the Amazon, a fisherman and scientist came up with an innovation that would help save a key giant fish that thrives in freshwater lakes along tributaries of the Amazon River.

The ingenuity of these three men is why you can now find beautiful and unusual durable fish leather in high-end New York bags, Texas cowboy boots and in a striking image from the photo shoot. Rihanna’s Vogue pregnancy dress, where a red fish-scale jacket is open. above her belly. The sales provide subsistence income for hundreds of Amazon families who also keep the forest standing and healthy while protecting their livelihoods.

MANAGE A GIANT

Leather is a by-product of pirarucu meat, an Amazon staple that is gaining new markets in Brazil’s biggest cities.

Indigenous communities working with non-indigenous riverine settlers manage pirarucu in unspoiled areas of the Amazon. Most of it is exported and the United States is the main market.

Pirarucu can reach 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) in length. Overfishing put them at risk. But things started to change when a settler fisherman, Jorge de Souza Carvalho, known as Tapioca, and university researcher Leandro Castello teamed up in the Mamiraua area and came up with a creative way to count fish in the lakes, the preferred habitat of the giant fish.

They took advantage of something special about this species: it surfaces to breathe at least every 20 minutes. A trained eye can count how many flash their red tails in a given area, arriving at a fairly accurate estimate.

The government recognizes this method of counting and authorizes managed fishing. By law, only 30% of the pirarucu in a given area can be fished the following year. The result is a recovering population in these areas, allowing larger catches.

In the riverside communities, people eat the fish, the skin and everything. But in the large slaughterhouses, where most of the pirarucu catch is processed, the skin was thrown away. Then the Nova Kaeru tannery appeared on the scene.

SHOESTRING DEBUT

Thousands of miles from the Amazon, on a hilly dirt road on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Nova Kaeru will process approximately 50,000 skins of legally caught giant pirarucu or arapaima fish this year.

This medium-sized company had an unlikely start. In 1997, Filgueiras, the guitarist, became involved in his family’s toad business, where amphibians were farmed for meat. He was struck by the beauty of their skin, but everything was thrown away. He decided to try using it, took a leatherworking course and started experimenting.

“I had no financial resources. I bought a used cement mixer and covered it with fiberglass, adapted a washing machine and started developing frog leather,” Filgueiras told The Associated Press in his office.

He managed to turn the skin into leather, but there was a problem: it was too small. No potential customer wanted it. Filgueiras tried to put it together, but the result was too ugly. So he invented a way to weld several parts together.

Its creation began to attract attention at international fairs. A few years later, with a partner, he founded the Nova Kaeru tannery, specializing in exotic leather, extending to salmon and ostrich with techniques that do not produce toxic waste.

Then one day a businessman knocked on the door with a pile of pirarucu skins and asked him to take a look.

While experimenting with the new hides, Filgueiras found he was able to repair the many holes in pirarucu leather using the same technique he had created for toad leather.

The first results impressed him. But in the meantime, the businessman died in a plane crash. Without previous experience in the Amazon, so different from its home base in Rio, the company nevertheless decided to source the pirarucu skin itself from the vast region.

They got in touch with the people who manage the fisheries in the state of Amazonas. This network has now expanded to 280 riverine and indigenous communities, most in protected rainforest areas, employing some 4,000 fishermen, according to Coletivo do Pirarucu, an umbrella organization. The Nova Kaeru Tannery bought the hides – the communities’ first buyer – and now their most important.

“The commercialization of the skin has been fundamental for the riverside communities,” Adevaldo Dias, a riverside chief in the Medio Jurua region, told the AP in a telephone interview. “It helps make the whole business viable.”

The Association of Rural Producers of Carauari, in the Medio Jurua, sells each skin for $37, a significant sum in a country where the minimum wage is around $237 a month. The money helps pay the fishermen, who receive $1.60 per kilo (2.2 pounds). Dias says the ideal price should be $1.9 per kilo of fish to cover all costs associated with managing the fishery. They hope to earn this in the near future by exporting pirarucu meat.

From Medio Jurua and other regions, the pirarucu leather has to travel several thousand kilometers by boat to Belem, where it is loaded onto trucks for another long journey to the headquarters of Nova Kaeru, a journey of several days. From there it goes by air to foreign buyers.

Pirarucu leather made its way to Texas, where it is used in cowboy boots. But the fashion industry is becoming increasingly aware of this. In New York, luxury brand Piper & Skye used pirarucu leather for shoulder bags, fanny packs and handbags priced up to $850.

“As pirarucu is a source of food and feeds local communities and puts food on the table for people in the areas where it is fished and beyond, it is not only a sustainable material and beautiful. It promotes the circularity of the species by using material that would otherwise be wasted,” brand founder and creative director Joanna MacDonald told the AP in a video call.

—Fabiano Maisonnave, Associated Press

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