Mota Project  

Sandra Hernández

Sandra Hernández & Jaime Gonzalves

For decades, fishing has been the most practiced extraction activity of the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon river basin, considering the big extension of its hydric ecosystems and the numerous fish populations that they contain. It has been estimated that around 300.000 people are related to the fishing activity for commercial or subsistence purposes (Parente et al., 2004). This activity plays an important role in the family economy of the riverside local communities, as fish is the most important protein diet component. Due to the demographic expansion during the last decades, fish exploitation has been raising together with the loss of the aquatic natural resources (Ruffino, 2005).

In the boundary zone between Colombia, Peru and Brazil, the fish trade represents an important economic activity. Leticia, the Colombian city, is the main commercial site where more than 1.000 tons of fish per year are traded, mainly to be sent to the big cities in the interour of this country. The dramaticall drop of the catfish capture during the last five years has switched the fishery target species, leading to an increase in catch of the mota fish (Calophysus macropterus), a scavenger species that is caught in Brazil and sold to Colombia (figure 1).

Figure 1. Individual of Calophysus macropterus commonly named mota fish.

Researches have detected that local people in Brazil and Peru are killing hundreds of river dolphins (Inia geoffrensis and Sotalia fluviatilis) and black caimans (Melanosuchus niger) each year, using their carcasses as baits and putting them into tramp-cages to attract the mota (Gomez et al., 2008; Estupiñan et al., 2003).

This situation has lead to a complex ecological and socioeconomic problem that involves many actors: dolphin hunters, fishermen, the gathering centers along the Amazon river, including the ship carriers that transport the mota to the cities, supermarkets and consumers (Gomez et al. 2008). This fishing method has been reported in Brazilian cities as Tabatinga and Coarí (Estupiñán et al., 2003), but it seems to be also practiced in the Javarí river basin. With the purpose of knowing if this activity is affecting the endangered species .

Jaime Gonzalves

Study area

The Javarí river is an Amazon tributary that travels approximately 1.180 km and along its extension it constitutes the natural boundary between the Amazon state in Brazil and the Loreto department in Peru. Its confluence with the Amazon river is located a few kilometers down-river from the meeting-point of Colombia, Brazil and Peru (figure 2). The study covered three rivers of this area: the Javari, the Itaquai and the Quixito.

For this region, the maximum water level of the river occurs in May during the rainy season, and the lowest during the dry season in September.

Figure 2. Location of the Amazon River Basin (left) and the Javari River in the boundary of Colombia, Brazil and Peru (right).



This study took place between October and November of 2009. The surveys were done through the local communities located in the riverside, where the main authority was consulted previously to communicate the main objective of the study. Interviews were undertaken with fishermen as an approach to the fishery activity in the zone, making emphasis in the mota fishery. Additionally, a visit to the local market of Atalaia do Norte (figure 2) was done to observe the commercialization of fish at a local level.

Figure 3. Interviews to fishermen in the local communities in Javarí river

Figure 4. Box used for store mota fish after captures.

Figure 5. Boat with iceboxes for fish storage.


During the study, 34 interviews were done in 7 peruvian and 10 brazilian local communities with inhabitants of the zone that were not indigenous to the Amazon region. Through these interviews ithe mota fishery process was analyzed and the deliberate catch of dolphins and black caimans identified for this purpose (figure 3).

Different types of baits are used for the mota fishery, such as cattle visceras and pig lard. Nevertheless, dolphins and black caimans are more frequently used because their carcasses allow fishing a considerable more amount of individuals. Dolphins constitute the most appropriate bait due to its high fat content which allows capturing between 800 – 1.200 pounds of mota in two hours using a two meter long river dolphin; and between 300 to 500 pounds using a two meter black caiman.

The dolphins, mostly Inia geoffrensis, are captured using harpoons or caught in nets of heavy nylon, generally at the lakes entrances or at the confluences of smaller rivers and creeks . However, not all the mota fishermen capture the bait, some of them buy it for 50.- Brazilian reais (USD $ 25.-) per unit from specialized dolphin hunters. After dead, the bodies are located on beaches or sunny places to accelerate the decomposing process of the carcasses.

The mota fishery is practiced as a team work between relatives and family members from the same community. A part of the group stays on the bank of the river at night with water up to the knees or hips, holding the bait with their hands or legs until fish start approaching them attracted by the decomposed flesh. The fish is then captured and placed into a large box or a boat to be cleaned.

Once the fishing activity is finished, the more complex part of the process begins, as is the cleaning of the fish, since a large amount of captured fish has been optained and the cleaning must be done fast. The visceras are extracted and then the fish are placed in an ice box for its preservation (figure 4).

The mota fishing activity is practiced during the whole year, mainly during the dry season (from June to September). The market price varies according to the availability of the resource. When mota fish is abundant on the markets, its costs is R$ 1.50 – 2.50 (USD $ 0.75-1.25) per kilo, although it can reach to R$ 4 (USD $ 2) per kilo during the flooded season.

All of the interviewed fishermen reported that all of these fishes are sold in Leticia, and then distributed to the big Colombian cities, like Bogotá D. C., Medellin and Cali. Generally, the fishermen visit the warehouses in Leticia offering their produce and find a buyer. After the sale has a guarantee, they buy ice and begin the activity to be delivered in Leticia by boat (figure 5).

It is important to note that this activity is not practiced by all fishermen in the area and not from all the local communities. Although many people try to practice this fishing method, they desist because carcasses attract not only the mota fish, but dangerous animals like snakes and fishes that can be harmful to men.

According to the interviews, brazilian people rather use dolphins while peruvian people use caimans more frequently. Local actors recognize that using these endangered animals is an illegal activity, which is why they are very reserved at offering the information. However, it is an easy and effective way of catching a big volume of fish in a short time. They have recognized that the capture of Calophysus macropterus has risen in the last years. Although, the consumption of this fish is not very common in the Amazon region since local people are aware of its eating habits and are not attracted to consuming it. This was confirmed after the visit to a local market, where mota fish was not found. Local people prefer scale fish (Characiformes) like Osteoglossum bicirrhosum, Cichla sp. and Mylossoma sp. (figure 6).

Additionally, fishermen report that mota fish arrives to Leticia not only from their communities but from greater Brazilian towns like Atalaia do Norte, Benjamin Constant and Tabatinga. There are sold other catfishes such as Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum, Pseudoplatystoma tigrinum, Pinirampus pirinampu and Brachyplatystoma rousseauxii, which are captured mainly with gillnets.

The obtained information allows calculating an approach as to the number of dolphins that are killed due to mota fishing. It is estimated that 20 dolphins are captured per fishing season just in the study area. According to the counting methods for dolphin populations during this study, around 250 dolphins were estimated for this zone. This data reflects that we could have a critical situation to the present time - due to the low reproductive task of the species - and that conservation actions are urgently required.



A pesca da piracatinga (Calophysus macropterus) na Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá. Relatorio Técnico. Ministério da Ciência e Tecnologia, Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá. Tefé, Brasil.


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PARENTE, V. M., BARROS, J. F. & FARIAS, C. H. 2004.

Bases para o manejo da pesca dos grandes bagres migradores. Socioeconomia. Relatório final. Ministerio do Meio Ambiente MMA, Programa Piloto para Proteςão das Florestas Tropicais PPG7, Instituto Brasilero do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis IBAMA.

RUFFINO, M. L. 2005.

Gestão do uso dos recursos pesqueiros na Amazônia. Provárzea, IBAMA. Manus, Brasil.