Recent health scare offers opportunity to improve regional markets for Amazon fish

A recent outbreak of Haff’s disease, otherwise known as “black urine disease,” has left fishing communities in the Brazilian Amazon reeling. Consumers, wary of being infected and spooked by a proliferation of misleading and inaccurate information, are shunning local fish and devastating the communities that depend on them for their livelihood.

As with the Covid 19 pandemic, this latest outbreak, centered in the states of Pará and Amazonas, has laid bare structural issues plaguing Brazil’s fisheries and the importance of ongoing efforts to address them.

Haff’s disease targets the muscle fibers, releasing substances into the bloodstream that affect mainly the kidneys. The main symptoms are intense muscle pain in the arms, legs, and back, as well as changes in the color of the urine. The consumption of contaminated fish—including three of the most popular native Amazonian species tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum), pirapitinga (Piaractus brachypomus) and pacu (Mylossoma spp.)—is believed to be the source of the outbreak.

Health officials first documented instances of the disease in 2008 and then again in 2015. Its appearance is thought to be associated with high floods and areas of standing water with algal blooms, however, thus far there are too few documented cases to justify any conclusions. The three main fish species linked to the illness all share similar eating habits, possibly consuming the toxin as they feed on phytoplankton. Most of the cases have occurred between July and October as floodwaters recede.

Fishing communities in Santarém receive food aid following an outbreak of haffe’s disease in the region in September. The outbreak has scared off customers, leaving fishing communities in the region without income. (Image via Sapopema)

In all, some 81 cases have been confirmed for the states of Pará and Amazonas, almost all of them from a 500 km stretch of the Amazon River floodplain between Manaus and Santarém, with victims ranging in age from 14 to 80. All are believed to have consumed contaminated fish.

Despite the tiny number of cases compared to the population eating fish on a daily basis, the appearance of the disease has sparked an outsized reaction from the public. A lack of information on exact causes has fueled rampant speculation and inflammatory media reports that brought fish consumption to a halt, leaving local markets deserted and fishers without an income. Restaurants and other supply chain actors—many of which are still coping with the economic fallout of the Covid 19 pandemic—are also feeling the pressure.

What started as a minor health crisis has rapidly become a serious economic crisis for fishers and other actors of the fish supply chain. Circumstances have become so dire that in September 41 fishing communities near the city of Santarém received 13 tons of emergency food supplies to help them cope with the near total loss of income tied to the outbreak.

Guidance from health officials, meanwhile, has focused on the low likelihood of infection and even lower risk of death (one case in Santarém). They are also warning residents to avoid consumption of the three species most associated with condition. Officials from the state’s Agriculture and Fisheries department also met and are working with other groups to devise a system for better tracing of the disease, tracking the journey of individual fish from floodplain lakes to markets, restaurants, and supermarkets. This is essential to identifying where infected fish have been caught and the conditions where this toxin occurs.

While these are welcome measures, they fall far short of what the sector needs to meet its potential as a driver of economic growth and its role in helping to slow rampant deforestation.

The current moment offers an opportunity to build on existing initiatives to mobilize government support for modernizing the fish supply chain. These include: programs for monitoring sanitary conditions of fish in open air markets; training programs for fishing communities on best practices for handling and storing fish; and a subsidized purchase program to enable fishers to acquire equipment that meets sanitary requirements.

A recent fair showcasing native Amazonian fish species, like pirarucu, have helped to drive consumer demand and popularize fish consumption in the region. (Image via Sapopema.)

Fishers, fishing industries, restaurant owners, supermarkets, university researchers and NGOs, meanwhile, have been working with local government agencies to improve conditions. Construction of a plan for the Sustainable Development of Fisheries and Aquaculture in the Lower Amazon brought together several groups involved in the fish supply chain and has spawned a variety of initiatives, including regional fairs for sustainable fish and media campaigns aimed at raising consumer awareness around the importance of sustainable fisheries management in addition to those mentioned above.

Prior to this latest outbreak, Santarém was gaining increasing national and international recognition as an important gastronomic center for Amazonian cuisine showcasing native fish species. Numerous local chefs and restaurants are combining national/international cuisine and local Amazonian recipes and ingredients.

In the last 10 days consumers have been returning to markets and fish sales have recovered though not for the three species responsible for most cases. What remains now is to build on the initiatives mentioned above to establish a program led by municipal and state governments that values Amazon fish and that gives assurance to restaurants, supermarkets, and consumers that the fish offered in the region’s markets is safe and meets national sanitary standards.

These measures are a necessary precondition for developing the enormous potential of the Amazon’s fisheries, which have played a major role in Amazon subsistence and trade since precolonial times. The hope is that the regional fisheries of Santarém and elsewhere emerge from this with higher quality fish, a more diverse array of fish species available to consumers and a thriving restaurant scene celebrating Amazon cuisine and Amazon fish.

Coauthors: Toby McGrath (EII e UFOPA), Antônia do Socorro Pena da Gama (UFOPA), Diego Maia Zacardi (UFOPA), Antonio José Mota Bentes (Sapopema)

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