The first time I encountered the Amazonian fish paiche, also called arapaima, was while watching the extreme-fishing show River Monsters. The thrashing, carnivorous fish had a bony head, required two men to lift it out of the water, and weighed about 150 pounds—a modest size for the largest fish in the Amazon River basin.
The second time I encountered paiche, I was at Whole Foods (WFM).
The high-end supermarket has been promoting farmed paiche (pronounced pie-chay) from Peru as a cheaper option to halibut or Chilean sea bass for more than a year. The grocer has a specific goal: to combat the overfishing of wild paiche in South America by generating demand for the farm-raised version in the U.S., where barely anyone knows how to pronounce it, let alone cook it. To save it, the theory goes, we first have to eat it.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) categorizes paiche among species that are “not necessarily threatened with extinction,” which allows it to be sold commercially, although “trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”
American’s don’t eat paiche, but it’s not impossible to create a market. Demand for Chilean sea bass, once known as Patagonian toothfish, was minimal in the U.S. until the 1990s. Still, from a conservation standpoint, creating demand for the threatened fish seems counterintuitive.
The explanation offered by Adrian Burstein, founder of Whole Foods’ paiche supplier ArtisanFish, is that the export market, which has the potential to be much larger than the Peruvian market for paiche, is necessary to generate the revenue to support the development of a fish farm. “If we had to operate only for Peruvian market, it would not cover the fixed costs of the project,” Burstein says. If paiche farms close, overfishing in the wild will resume, he argues.
Meanwhile, the arapaima population continues to dwindle. In a recent survey of 81 communities in Amazonas, Brazil, 19 percent said the paiche have already vanished from their waterways. The fish have fared better in communities with fishing rules, such a a minimum capture size.
“We’re giving consumers the opportunity to buy that fish, and its not coming from an endangered source, and we’re helping to rebuild that stock,” says Jeremy St. Gelais, Whole Foods’ seafood-product procurement team leader. To that end, Whole Foods is selling paiche for roughly $13.99 per pound, about 40 percent cheaper than other whitefish. Whole Foods has been trying to offer lower-priced seafood; it recently noted the success of its cheaper salmon with customers.
There’s a risk here, says Paul Greenberg, author of American Catch and Four Fish. “The Whole Foods consumer is looking for something new and exotic,” he says, but if paiche becomes popular enough in the U.S., supermarkets without Whole Foods’ mission could buy from fisherman with less sustainable practices. Whether the farms help to restore the paiche population “rests on ability of each country to manage their fisheries,” says Greenberg.
So far, paiche has made its way onto such shows as Iron Chef and into some high-end restaurants, including chef Ricardo Zarate’s California restaurant Paichẽ. In fact, ArtisanFish sells most of its paiche to restaurants, rather than grocers. According to St. Gelais, paiche has the mild flavor of whitefish, but is denser and less flaky than, say, cod.
Consumers do seem curious. A spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program says enough market demand is developing in the U.S. that it has added paiche to its list of species that will be assessed in 2015 to detail how sustainable it is.