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People in Bolivia don’t eat much fish — among South American nations it has the lowest per-capita consumption — despite having a large number of lakes and rivers.

But local, sustainably sourced fish could be a good source of protein and help reduce food insecurity, as well as provide a new source of income for poor, rural populations. So the International Development Research Centre and Global Affairs Canada have teamed up with academics and NGOs in Canada and Bolivia on the Amazon Fish for Food project, which is trying to find ways to encourage the sustainable use of the country’s fish resources through fishing and aquaculture.

“We want to build the value chain to get people to eat more fish, and to get fish into markets,” says Joachim Carolsfeld, executive director of the World Fisheries Trust, and one of the project’s leaders.

The project aims to increase fish consumption by developing a fishery for the invasive paiche and through small-scale aquaculture for the native pacu.

Paiche are native to the lower Amazon, but were introduced to the upper Amazon about 40 years ago when a Peruvian aquaculture project went bust and released its fish. Since then they have “gone wild” in the river’s upper reaches, says Carolsfeld. The monstrous fish, which can be as long as three metres, could provide new opportunities and new markets if managed sustainably.

A big advantage of paiche is that as a new fishery, there is an opportunity to rethink how the production chain works. Currently, most of the money from Boliva’s fisheries goes to middlemen, rather than the fishers themselves, so Carolsfeld and his colleagues in Bolivia are trying to negotiate more equitable arrangements for the paiche fishery. “The challenge is we’re dealing with the established social status quo,” says Carolsfeld. “We have to manage not only the resource, but how people think about it.”

In other parts of the Bolivian Amazon, the project is encouraging people to take up fish farming of pacu, a kind of giant vegetarian piranha, in small earthen ponds. In some regions, there is a tradition of women raising fish, so the goal is to spread the practice to other areas to provide a livelihood for rural communities. Mark Flaherty, a geographer at the University of Victoria who is part of the project team, is working with a Bolivian rural development bank, CIDRE, to develop loans and other financial products to help people set up small aquaculture operations in their communities. “We’re trying to verify the assumption that people are interested,” he says. “We want to find out what they need to get started, and if credit is an issue.”

They also want to build up local technical expertise rather than rely on foreign experts who will disappear when the project ends — a problem other community-based aquaculture projects in the developing world have encountered before, says Flaherty. “The fancy for it ends when the project ends,” he says. “People need skin in the game.”

With that in mind, the team is working to identify and train lead farmers who can help launch new aquaculture projects.

But none of this will matter if people in other parts of Bolivia aren’t interested in eating the fish. So Luis Badani from the Bolivian marketing consultant IMG is surveying markets around the country to find out why people eat so little fish, and what might change their minds. The main complaints, he has found, are that fish is generally expensive, smells bad and has too many bones.

Badani’s team is working on ways to solve those problems — improving the supply chain so that the fish arrive to market in better condition, with more diverse choices and better prices, as well as designing a permanent media campaign to encourage people to try fish. Paiche and pacu currently make up just a small part of the market for fish in Bolivia, so there’s plenty of room for growth, he says.

There could also be major export markets for both paiche and pacu in neighbouring countries, says Badani, but it could take several years for Bolivia’s nascent industry to develop to the point where it meets international quality standards. “The priority in these years is to meet domestic demand and achieve reasonable levels of consumption at the national level,” he says.

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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at

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