Basa fish: the other “hippopotamus” in Colombia that nobody wants to talk about

Basa fish specimen captured in the main channel of the Magdalena River in San Clara (Yondó). / Fisherman Jairo Mora – Courtesy Wetlands Foundation

Photo: Courtesy

On 4 February, the Ministry of Environment announced a decision for years waiting scientists and conservationists: the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), from Africa and introduced illegally in the 80s to the country would be declared a kind invasive Despite the uproar of movements and animal spokespersons, after listening to the recommendations of the National Technical Committee for Introduced, Translocated and/or Invasive Species, the measure was firm. The technical and scientific studies, developed by the Humboldt Institute and the Institute of Natural Sciences of the National University, evidenced the environmental risks and impacts that this species could generate in strategic ecosystems for the country, such as the Magdalena River and its native species.

Press releases, videos, photos, coverage in national and international media and a resolution with the new list of invasive species stole the spotlight. It was not be for lowerly. Invasive species are one of the main causes of biodiversity loss in the world, they are responsible for the extinction of species and affect the functionality of ecosystems. But, while the declaration was taking place, another species illegally introduced into the country was navigating the Magdalena River at ease. It is the fish basa (Pangasius hypophthalmus), Originally from the Mekong River, which was brought more than 10 years to Colombia, possibly to boost its aquaculture production. Although since 2012 the Institute Humboldt alerted its invasive potential, cataloged as an exotic species of high risk and expressed the urgency to take stricter prevention efforts and policies out, but so far have not taken action to stop its expansion.

In August 2015, artisanal fishermen confirmed the presence of the Basa fish in the Magdalena River, capturing the first specimen of this species in the natural environment: a small swamp of the Carare River. The same month two other specimens were collected in the Guarinocito swamp, 150 kilometers above Carare. Current records add captures in the natural environment in at least eight departments of the country, showing a progressive expansion of its distribution (see map). Bull, a fisherman from Neiva, claims to have caught 23 of these fish during his work in the last eight years, all near the Betania dam, just 30 kilometers from the capital of Huila. The largest weighed 14 pounds.

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Neither the Ministry of the Environment nor the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA) have authorized the importation of parental Basa fish. Nor have they authorized its use for aquaculture or as an ornamental fish. The only way in which Colombia can import this animal is like frozen steak (and they have done since 2008). But the existence of crops pangasius, as this species is known, is a secret.

More than 10 years ago, aquaculturists e ichthyologists involved a Colombian Congress of Ichthyology in Ibague alerted about the presence of parental fish based feet in departments like Cauca Valley, Huila, Cauca, Meta and Santander. Today, a simple Facebook search reveals that illegal production has spread to various corners of the country. In a couple of minutes can be found selling “seed” or fingerlings of this species promoting it in public groups almost 16 thousand members, dispatching from La Dorada, Honda, Neiva, Restrepo, Monteria, Tame, among other municipalities. “We have routes you 365 days of the year across the country, and provide technical assistance,” reads one of the publications. “Great coupon for you and your friends, your shopping pangasius catfish fingerlings have an additional 7% mortality. And to make it even better, you are giving 15% discount, “says another. Fish can also be found in pet stores in big cities like Bogota and Bucaramanga, where they sell as “little sharks pangas” for its similar to the top predators of the sea forms.

In fact, on April 14, in the middle of Holy Week, the Ministry of Agriculture published a trill congratulating fish farmers. “Our fish farmers have put on trout and are exporting 192,521 tons of tilapia, trout, salmon, basa, tuna, shrimp, among others. … continue supporting them, “he noted. If you are not allowed cultivation based on the country, how can we be exporting?

Huila is the department with the highest aquaculture production. According to MINAGRICULTURA in 2021 it contributed 39% of national fish production. It is also the heart of the discussion about the basa fish. A walk through the ports, market squares and fish sales points in Neiva, its capital, is enough to confirm the presence of the species. Sell it to other names, such as catfish, Capaceta or pankration, almost never say “based”. A asking where they come from, the answer tends to be the same, and without any doubt: “cultivation”. Just change the location. Some indicate that crop near the dam Bethany others Campoalegre other than the Quimbo. few weeks, the executive director of Fedeacua confirmed that Huila is increasing the cultivation of this fish does.

Just 30 minutes from Neiva, The viewer He was able to see a farming center with a lake dedicated to the Basa. Despite all the evidence, the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Magdalena (CAM), the environmental authority in charge of control actions against exotic species and the protection of local biodiversity, assures that “so far, in Huila we have no official reports or complaints of presence of the basa fish”.

Concerns about the fish based

This has become one of the species with the greatest aquaculture in the world. Its rapid growth (it can reach one kilogram in just four months) and reproduction (about one million eggs per spawning) make it a very profitable species. These characteristics have also led it to colonize, largely irregularly, various corners of the planet.

It has a wide diet, it can eat from zooplankton, algae and fruits, to larvae, crustaceans and other fish. Bull, the fisherman, assures that in the pangasius specimens that he has captured and cleaned, he has found larvae, stone licks, fingerlings the size of a little finger and eggs with licks. That is one of the biggest concerns of scientists and fishermen. “If it reproduces a lot, what will happen to the eggs of the other fish? They kill the other species of fish,” he explains. Bull. In recent years, he has seen fisheries decline, and he worries that a species like this could put even more pressure on the ecosystem.

Basa is also a very good fish to survive in extreme environments (it has water and air breathing, which allowed to stay under very low oxygen dissolved), and migrate hundreds of kilometers between places of refuge and spawning in parts high rivers, and feeding and nursery areas downstream. “Being a migratory species, it is presumed that could compete with native species, which are the underpinning about 70% of annual fish production in the basin,” said Carlos Lasso, research director at the line of hydro-biological resources of the Humboldt .

Moreover, as he explained biologist Maria Camila Castellanos, this species is in the Magdalena basin the availability of “ecological niche”. Ie has suitable environmental characteristics very similar to those of their place of origin to be established. The map accompanying this note is the result of an investigation Castellanos. The red lines show the places that have ideal conditions for the species is established. Many of these areas overlap with the ecological niches of native species, such as maid, tilefish and striped catfish (which is already in critical threat).

If the species is adapted to the natural environment, explains Lasso, several things can happen: that is widely distributed in the watershed that individuals reach sexual maturity and increase reproductive potential and that the species is established, because it does have its natural predators or potential competitors. “What we never want to get the pangasius is formed in the natural environment a population of individuals capable of breeding stable and workable,” says the researcher. “If there are few individuals and the possibility of meeting is low, there is less chance of a successful reproductive event. But if he can reproduce in the environment, eradicate it becomes an almost impossible task, “he adds.

Although so far not been observed larvae or Ichthyoplankton that may indicate the reproduction of the pangasius in the natural environment, on 28 March, fishermen from the Sinu and San Jorge rivers reported for the first time, capturing a female 100 centimeters with a pound of eggs. In Caucasia, other fishermen also reported catching a sexually mature male of 36 centimeters.

“The results of this introduction are not going to be seen now, but if they are not controlled immediately, the processes of eradicating invasive species can cost millions of dollars, with enormous losses, not only monetary, but also for biodiversity,” says Silvia López, doctor in biology and ecology of freshwater ecosystems. “Hippos are easy to see, they are huge, fish are not.”

Decisions have not been taken

A year ago The viewer consulted the Ministry of the Environment about the obvious problem of the Basa fish. At that time, the highest environmental authority replied that it was “in the process of making a decision and, until it is made, we will not have any statements on the matter.” Less than 90 days after a change of government, the decision has not yet been made. The Basa fish is not included in any of the resolutions on invasive or high-risk species that the Minambiente has established.

Since the end of last year, meetings have been held between the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority (Aunap), the Humboldt Institute, the Ministry and other entities of the National Environmental System (Sina) to evaluate the scientific information available to date and provide a response to the country, still has not arrived.

“The Humboldt Institute delivered a document in which more than 20 authors participated and 450 academic sources are collected that have to do with information on the Basa fish in Colombia. With this information, we recommend the non-introduction and non-domestication of this species in Colombia”, assures Hernando García, director of the Humboldt Institute. He assures that it has a high risk of being an invasive species and that the consequences of its establishment in natural ecosystems could cause severe ecological damage. “The Government has promoted an informed discussion and has called for all organizations to put the information on the table to make the decision. The research institutes already comply with delivering the best possible information to build a final decision”, he adds. While a response from the environmental portfolio is awaited, the new investigations are aimed at knowing the level of establishment of the basque fish in our rivers.

* We consulted the Ministry of the Environment and the Aunap for this report, but we did not receive a response.

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