RIO NEGRO, AMAZONAS STATE, Brazil— As the motorized canoe churns upstream along amid the tea-colored waters of the Amazon flooded forest, Scott Dowd fondly recalls snorkeling, not far from here, among a school of spawning piranhas.
“I was with a British woman, and we saw a commotion,” he shouts over the motor. “Piranha were spawning. You get asked, aren’t piranhas dangerous? The standard answer is, ‘only when they’re spawning.’ We were in shallow water, on our knees, in the middle of an intense piranha frenzy. Piranhas were bouncing off our heads!”
But Dowd, 48, a big man with a silvery beard and twinkling blue eyes, felt perfectly at home. He’s been snorkeling these waters for 26 years and never been attacked — not even when, as an experiment, he offered a school of one of the ostensibly most aggressive species his bleeding hand.
“Piranhas,” he says, “are not consistent with their reputation.”
Piranhas are part of Dowd’s fish family. At the New England Aquarium, where he presides over its Freshwater Gallery on the second floor, Dowd is in charge of 15 red-bellied piranhas, as well as 11,761 other animals, from the three, 13-foot-long anacondas to the 2,644, inch-long, day-glo red and electric blue cardinal tetras. At the end of each workday, he takes the ferry home to Weymouth — where he serves the town Conservation Commission as an adviser to its herring warden, protecting one of the most important herring spawning grounds in New England.
Dowd takes care of fish, protects fish, talks fish, thinks fish, dreams fish. He can smell when fish are stressed. The low-tide-like scent, which not everyone can detect, comes from heat shock proteins — and the scent of it, he says, gives him the same panicked feeling as when his infant sons would cry.
And when he gets away from the fish at work and the fish at home? Dowd goes looking for more fish, working to protect the wild fish of the Rio Negro and the Amazon forest that nurtures them though his conservation charity, Project Piaba. (Piaba means “little fish” in Brazilian Portuguese, which Dowd speaks fluently).
“His kind of dedication and excitement and enthusiasm — for Project Piaba and his job in general — is amazing,” says Nigella Hillgarth, New England Aquarium president and CEO. Dowd’s Brazilian project is the kind of work aquariums everywhere “are emphasizing more and more,” she says. “Conservation in the field, and not just in the aquarium.”
Each year for more than a quarter century, Project Piaba has drawn Dowd back to Brazil, up the Amazon River’s blackwater tributary. This year he’s taking 40 people with him: fish experts from Europe and America; volunteers and staff from the aquarium; and, for the first time — along with their mom, their grandparents, and several adult cousins — his sons, Theo, 7, and Daniel, 4. Soon they’ll all be swimming with piranhas.
“It’s tricky here — we’ve got to duck!” Dowd tells Daniel as the boat passes beneath the branches of a machimango tree partially submerged in the flooded forest.
“I always envisioned bringing my kids down here,” he says. “It’s been such a big part of my life for so long.”
And while his kids may seem young to be venturing into the Amazon, Dowd himself was already well along his maverick career path by the time he was as old as red-headed, freckled Theo.
Growing up in Weymouth as the youngest of six, “I had the freedom to explore,” he remembers. He caught sunfish, tadpoles, and other creatures at the local pond, bringing them home to fish tanks rescued from other people’s trash. When he was 7, he’d ride his Schwinn Stingray to a pet store named Barks and Bubbles, where he bought more fish — swordtails and cichlids — and became a sort of de facto volunteer there. When he was 12, he’d ride his bike to Quincy, duck under the turnstiles to the T, and with a smudge on the back of his hand faked to look like the entry stamp, sneak into the New England Aquarium.
When he turned 18, he became an official aquarium volunteer; at 21 he dropped out of college to accept a full-time job there. (In 2003, writing his thesis on stress in the cardinal tetra, he would earn a master’s degree in aquaculture from Scotland’s Stirling University.) Soon he found himself in charge of the Freshwater Gallery and its centerpiece Amazon exhibit.
Dowd’s first tax refund financed his first trip to the actual Amazon. Traveling with University of Amazonas ichthyologist Dr. Labbish Chao and 10 others, he headed to Barcelos, a town of 20,000 in the heart of the Amazon forest. It was the point of departure from which many of the fish Dowd loved had been shipped.
When he got there, he was horrified. He estimated some 40 million tropical fish a year were leaving the rain forest from this port. “I thought, this is out of control,” Dowd remembers. “We shouldn’t be taking them from wild — we should be farming them.”
But soon Dowd realized: “I couldn’t have been more wrong.” Every dry season, when the river drops more than 30 feet, billions of fish die in drying puddles. Rescuing them from doom, fishers in homemade canoes capture the valuable, tiny creatures in handheld nets.
“I know of no more benign fishery,” says Dowd. Barcelos’s ornamental fish trade provides 60 percent of the cash income for 40,000 people from the surrounding 46,000-square-mile municipality. Locals repel environmentally disastrous timber, cattle ranging, and mining interests as if their lives depend on it, because they do.
To support the fishery, Dowd and Chao cofounded Project Piaba in 1992. At times, it’s been an uphill battle. Ever since the collapse of the rubber industry, after foreigners smuggled out seeds of the native rubber trees, Brazilians have mistrusted outsiders; and in the US, some animal rights groups vocally oppose any capture of animals from the wild.
But Project Piaba has won important converts — including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s oldest science-based conservation organization.
“It’s very important we support projects that protect both the environment and the people who protect the environment,” says Richard Sneider, chair of the IUCN’s Freshwater Fish Specialist Group. He has personally visited Barcelos to see for himself, and IUCN is promoting Project Piaba as a model for others around the world.
Among Dowd’s guests on this trip are pet store chain owners, wholesalers, fish trade marketing consultants, and the president of Ornamental Fish International, the international trade association, all lending their support to the project.
They’re scheduled to meet with fishers in Barcelos to give them some good news: Thanks to the efforts of Project Piaba’s Brazilian economist, Mari Balsan, the colorful ornamental fish from this region have been granted Geographical Indication status, like France’s champagne — the first living organisms so honored. It’s hoped to boost the Rio Negro’s fishery at a time some pet stores are turning to cheaper, farmed fish, a development which Dowd fears could spell disaster for the people and jungle here.
But before Barcelos, Dowd wants to visit other old friends. His canoe pulls up to a sandy beach where saplings’ leaves grow green under the water. “There should be cardinal tetras here,” Dowd announces — the iconic home aquarium fishes, shy, tiny, glittering gems of ruby and sapphire that dazzle and shimmer in the Rio Negro’s shallows.
With Daniel on his back, Dowd surrenders his weight to the dark water. He not so much swims like a fish as floats like a cloud in the sky. He submerges his dive-masked face and waits for the cardinals to appear.
Others are looking, too. “Dicrossus filamentosus!” cries one, spotting a checkerboard cichlid, popular in home aquariums. “What’s this one with a pink neon stripe?” asks another snorkler. There are probably piranhas nearby, as well. But where are the cardinals? For 45 minutes, the search continues until — “I found them!” Dowd cries.
Fellow snorkler Marion Lepzelter, who’s volunteered at the aquarium gallery for eight years, isn’t surprised. “Of course he found them,” she says. “They only come out for their king.”
Sy Montgomery co-writes the weekly Tamed/Untamed column in the Globe, and is the author of 20 books on animals and nature.