Fishing in a lake beside the River Purus. Photo credit: Daniel Tregidgo.

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Billions of people still get much of their food from fishing and hunting, which also cause wildlife declines. These declines make it harder for fishers and hunters to catch their food, so that they bring home less fish and bushmeat per hour in overharvested areas. Such ‘catch rates’ aren’t just determined by how much wildlife there is, but also by natural factors like seasonal migrations. However, nobody has ever investigated how changes in wildlife catch rates affect the ability of fishers and hunters to feed themselves and their families.

Due to the incredible biological richness of Amazonian forests and rivers, it is assumed that rural Amazonians have no trouble feeding themselves. However, some places in the Amazon have been overharvested, and it can also be harder to catch fish during seasonal floods. But can these changes in catch rates affect the ability of local people to feed themselves?

To answer this question, we first asked local people “what do you do when there’s not enough food?”, and found that they do things like skip meals, reduce portion sizes, or eat canned meat. We then visited hundreds of rural houses and asked residents how often they do these things. We also asked how much fish and bushmeat they caught recently and how long it took to catch them, and used this information to calculate catch rates (kilograms per hour). We visited houses in more and less overfished areas, during both the low and high water seasons.

Overfishing didn’t affect catch rates or the ability of locals to feed themselves. However, they found it much harder to catch fish during the high water season, when floods dilute and scatter fish throughout the flooded forests. Despite spending longer fishing and hunting during this period, they still struggled to feed themselves. For example, during a month of the high water season, a third of households had skipped a meal, and a sixth hadn’t eaten for a whole day. Despite the Amazon’s riches, its residents are suffering from what the United Nations call “severe food insecurity”. This shows how people really do depend on nature.

The River Purus during the low water season. In the high water season ribeirinhos canoe through the flooded forest where they catch most of their fish. Photo credit: Daniel Tregidgo.