A giant fish, symbol of the Amazon fresh waters, pirarucu can reach three meters and exceed 300 kilos.
But, if it is up to the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), very soon it will be available in a much more compact version on supermarket shelves.
The institution has developed the canned pirarucu fillet, which is now in the final testing phase.
According to researcher Alessandra Ferraiolo, some advantages may lead the product to stand out in the market: the species (Arapaima gigas) shows a high growth rate, good adaptation to raising conditions, muscle yield and meat quality, light color, firm texture, smooth taste, in addition to the absence of intramuscular bones and low fat content.
Pirarucu also possesses high nutritional value (1.5% lipids, 1% mineral content 1 and 19% proteins), sanitary quality, good sensory acceptance and a longer shelf life.
"It is a convenience product, ready for consumption, and does not require the freezing chain for storage, distribution and commercialization. Pirarucu also allows for differentiated cuts, such as medallions. These characteristics make it possible to use the species as an alternative raw material for the canning process in the fish industry, in a market niche of high quality products and high added value", says Ferraiolo.
She reports the idea of developing canned pirarucu fillets originated from a project aimed at implementing and validating technologies for pirarucu farming in riverside communities.
The objective was to diversify the existing canned fish products on the market, add value and encourage consumption in order to promote the production chain of the species.
In the opinion of the head general of Embrapa Amazônia Oriental, Walkymário Paulo Lemos, this is a golden opportunity to strengthen the bioeconomy of the Amazon region around an abundant and endemic resource, since many management areas are in riverside communities.
Lemos points out that the necessary logistics for pirarucu to reach the domestic context of people from outside the Amazon is expensive and complex, therefore canning would be an asset to overcome these barriers.
"We asked ourselves why such a meager number of species are offered in canned form. And we thought it would be very positive to have canned fish from the Amazon, as it would allow other people to consume pirarucu much more easily. In Brazil, we only have an abundant supply of canned sardines and tuna, and, eventually, salmon. In other words, there is a gap in the market and I don't see a better and tastier option than pirarucu to fill it. We can generate income for the native people of the Amazon using fish native to the region," he argues.
World interest in fish from the Amazon is notable
In the opinion of Francisco Medeiros, president of Brazilian Fish Farming Association (Peixe BR), the determinant factor for the success or failure of canned pirarucu is the price.
He also believes that the impact of the so-called "Amazon brand" and the market niche aimed at conscious consumers focused on supporting small producers and environmentally responsible initiatives can also boost the prestige of the product.
"We have to improve productivity and competitiveness, and this is subject to research carried out at Embrapa. One of the main products of managed pirarucu is its salty blanket, still sold with low sanitary, economic and organoleptic value. But it is a very noble product to be sold anyway, as in the most cases in Belém. The Amazonians are the ones who buy it, not the rest of the world. But the more research is done, the more products can be developed and the more value is added", he highlights.
For Cassandra Lobato, from the International Business Center of the Federation of Industries of Pará, the world's interest in fish from the Amazon is notable and this visibility tends to increase.
In the last 10 years alone, the increase in exports reached 68%, with the United States, Hong Kong and China featuring as main partners.
In 2022, while economy recovered, Pará earned US$78 million from the sale of fish to the foreign market, an increase of 1.19% compared to the 2021 result.
"The United States doesn't buy as much China, but it is a country with a very wide range of tastes and interests. That is the chance for the Amazonian fishes differential features and exoticism to be noticed. Fish contributes a lot to the diversification of the trade balance in Pará. We already have an established export culture of fish, so this is one more product to strengthen it. We have an intense and continuous work to promote the Amazonian fish in international fairs, help in sanitary adaptations, packaging and marketing. The horizon is promising", she points out.
Embrapa evaluated both captive and community-managed fish. Fillets from different parts of its body were used with the aim of investigating whether they all respond positively and equitably to the canning process or whether adaptations would be necessary.
Filleted fish were placed in a 3% brine solution, a salt-saturated water used to preserve and enhance flavor.
There were also sterilization processes and removal of oxygen, which eliminates excess air vapor and avoids health problems.
The canned pirarucu was subjected to sensory analysis and meat acceptance tests carried out with blindfolded volunteers.
The canned product of farmed pirarucu was preferred over that made with fish from natural capture. Farmed fish excelled in texture, flavor and overall impression attributes.
"The conclusion was that the flavor was very well accepted and the fish maintained all its organoleptic characteristics", says Walkymário. The next studies will focus on the analysis of the shelf life and the expectation is that the period during which the product may be kept for sale will be long.
Researches have cataloged other market advantages due to zootechnical characteristics. Pirarucu, for example, is a fish that has a very expressive weight gain during a one-year period - up to 12 kilos -, especially under proper management conditions.
This increases the fillet meat availability. In terms of economic advantages, research by Embrapa indicates that pirarucu is twice as profitable as tambaqui and up to 40 times more profitable than buffaloes, cattle and sheep.
"And it is an eye-catching meat to look at, due to its white color. We have already started to negotiate with companies about it, in order to sign partnership contracts in the future. Our expectation is that the employed technology will take this innovation to the market and that consumers will enjoy the product", he highlights.
Canned pirarucu is promising, says producer
The positive results of Embrapa's research encourage farmed pirarucu producers. This is the case of Koji Arima, partner-owner of Paima Pescados, located in Benevides.
Currently, the company mainly supplies the local market, but Arima is gradually looking to expand its business beyond the borders of Pará.
Initially, he produced tambaquis, but the cost-benefit of the production made him change his focus.
Today, he coordinates the production of 14 tanks, each one containing between 200 and 250 pirarucu fish.
They are kept in geomembrane tanks, in six-meter diameter pools, using a method known as densification.
"It is a rustic, prehistoric animal that has survived well over time. Farming it is easier, as it is a fish that breathes both through the lungs and through the respiratory gills. So, it does not need very specific oxygen treatment, but we are always changing the water to eliminate impurities. But the fact of not having to worry about water oxygenation is an advantage,' he says.
Ajima believes that canned pirarucu is promising because it is something new.
He currently works with the slaughter of animals of 10-kilogram in average, a stage he describes as the ideal point for tenderness and protein quality of the meat.
Today, Paima company also produces pirarucu leather bags, with the aim of using 100% of the fish.
"It is an initiative that goes in the same direction as the development of canned fish, as we want to verticalize production more and more. We started to manufacture still a small production, cutting and dyeing is done right here in the property. It is possible to make reasonable profit using previously discarded product. If it has good quality and origin, pirarucu is really a world of possibilities. It's a commerce that is increasingly expanding and I don't see any possibility of canned pirarucu not working out", he points out.
The director of Embrapa Amazônia Oriental, Walkymário Paulo Lemos, is looking forward to the studies to be concluded and companies to take the products to supermarket shelves.
“We bet high on pirarucu, but we can expand investments to other species. The world is discussing strategic global agendas that are very inclusive concerning the Amazon region. We have plentiful biological richness, but this is not resulting in social income for our population. This technology is friendly to the involvement of local populations in the process of farming pirarucu and can become a great example of our bioeconomic potential, with science being a vector, a partner of this new reality. It seems to me a good indication of what the world is looking for and Pará has a chance to be in the front line."
Canned food dates back to the year 1795
It was during the Napoleonic wars and Franc e's growing need to store food in a more durable and hygienic way that then-Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could create a new food preservation process.
Food canning technology was developed in 1795 by French cook Nicolas Appert, who initially used bottles for the process.
His name is eternalized in the method, which is known as appertization. He didn't die rich, despite the success of his products, which soon took over the world. In 1810, British trader Peter Durand patented his own method focused only on cans, thus creating the modern food canning process.
According to the president of Peixe BR, Brazil is capable of and should expand the canned fish market.
He believes that the development of canned pirarucu proves that any food can be sold in cans, as long as there is investment in research to make the products viable.
"In Belém, fishing boats arrive daily at Ver-o-Peso, with a huge amount of fish of low commercial value, which could be sold in cans. Pirarucu is an exceptional fish, but it is expensive. The initiative is good because it opens doors for other canned food options to be developed. I think this trend can work out, then, it’s probably going to reach more popular kinds of fish", evaluates Francisco Medeiros.
Medeiros recalls that, ten years ago, there was a boom in the pirarucu farming system in the state of Rondônia, in northern Brazil, which reached the production of nine thousand tons a year.
This increase in cultivation spread throughout the Amazon region, leading to improvements in the pirarucu farming system and becoming an example of successful sustainable fishing worldwide.
Whereas the production of farmed pirarucu increases, in a controlled environment and feeding, the production of managed pirarucu, which depends only on fishing line and hook, reduces. But the production cost of farmed fish is higher, and can reach R$ 12 per kilo. On the other hand, managed fish, in the harvest period, costs between R$ 4 and R$ 6 on average.
"Farmed pirarucu cannot compete with managed pirarucu. We are in favor of management because it is an important sustainability action. In the medium and long term, we see an increase in the supply of managed pirarucu. The consumer is still not willing to pay twice as much for farmed fish, they want to buy it cheaper. Therefore, the production based on farming is still focused on market niches", he says.