The arapaima (Arapaima gigas) is also known as the pirarucu in Brazil and as the paiche in Peru. One of the largest species of freshwater fish in the world, in its natural habitat it can reach 3 meters in length and weighs around 250 kilos -, it is widespread in the Amazon region, in Peru limited to the Napo, Putumayo, Maranon, Pastaza and Ucayali rivers, in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and in the department of Loreto.
The paiche lives in water characterized by a low oxygen level and the presence of abundant organic material from decomposition of land and water plant life. It mainly feeds on small fish and, while growing will eat a quantity of food equaling 3-5% of its body weight. It has a torpedo shape and light chestnut coloring on the back and white underneath. Its head is small in relation to its body.
This species has always been a very important food source and also used for rituals for the Amazon basin populations. They are eaten fresh and cooked over coals or made into soups and stews. Its meat has always been a key source of protein for indigenous tribes, who also use the scales to make craft products. Fishing was performed using rudimentary harps until the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese, but with the introduction of new fishing instruments and new preservation techniques the catches intensified. By the end of the 19th century salted paiche was a very widespread food in part based on its low cost. But starting in the 1960s the demand for this fish and overfishing resulted in a decrease in the presence of this species. Campaigns and projects have been started in recent decades to improve repopulation – including with the involvement of local communities – , such as the establishment of natural reserves, limitation of the fishing season from October to February and creation of aquaculture sites for commercial and research purposes.
The quality of its meat has resulted in its use in some of the most important Peruvian restaurants.