Heiko Bleher Arrested for Fish Smuggling

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Heiko Bleher collecting. Image © Aquapress.

Renowned for discovering thousands of tropical fish species, including many that have become mainstays in the freshwater aquarium world, swashbuckling ichthyologist Heiko Bleher was arrested in Manaus recently by Brazilian authorities and charged with smuggling fish specimens.

When bottles containing a reported 10 preserved fish, believed to include a number of previously unknown species, were found in his luggage, Bleher, 64, was seized by the Brazilian Polícia Federal (PF) while trying to embark for a flight to Milan from Eduardo Gomes Airport with his companion, photographer Natasha Khardina, 29, of Uzbekistan. (Khardina was recently honored with the naming of a new tetra species, Hyphessobrycon khardinae.)

The police said that the pair did not have official authorization for the capture and export of animals. They also claimed that Bleher's documentation included only permission for taking photography from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment (IBAMA).

According to Brazilian press reports, Bleher and Khardina were charged with two crimes: transport without authorization of Brazilian species (Law 9605/98 of Ambient Crimes) and contraband and embezzlement. Bleher was jailed, in what has been reported as despicable conditions.

According to a report by the British periodical Practical Fishkeeping, which publishes a column by Bleher, he had been under investigation by the Brazilians for more than a year in apparent preparation for the arrest.

A Crusader Stung

Bleher's defenders were quick to point out that he had likely been targeted by Brazilian authorities for having spoken out on numerous occasions about the country's plans to allow rainforest cutting and deforestation that would lead to massive loss of biodiversity.

Heiko Bleher publishes books and online information under the Aquapress imprint and is credited with bringing many fish species to the attention both of the ichthyological community and aquarium keepers.

According to his biography on Aquapress:

"Over the years, generally alone, Heiko penetrated jungles in all South and Central American countries. He also travelled to the Amazon area as many as 10 times a year in search of discus and others species.

"In the 1970s he expanded his operations to include Africa, Asia and Oceania (Australia, New Guinea, etc.) and began to give lectures around the world. He made his first Discus-TV film, Expeditionsziel Aquarienfische with the German ZDF and made many TV appearances in different countries.

His first discus book was published in 1982 and re-printed 10 times. Since then he has published articles on discus in magazines around the world. His first documentary film The Wimpel Piranh was made In 1983, followed by films on freshwater fishes in New Guinea, Australia, Central America and Brazil then four films on discus in the 90s.

Until 1997 from Frankfurt he supplied wholesalers world-wide with new species, including new discus variants every year, mostly from his own discoveries. Between 1965 and 1997, besides introducing most of the wild discus variants into the hobby—directly or by means of the breeders—he introduced more than 4,000 aquarium fish species he had discovered (or re-discovered).

This includes the variants such as “blue-headed Heckel,” “Alenquer,” “Red-spotted greens” from the Coar and Japurá regions, the famous Rio Içá discus, and also rainbowfishes such as Melanotaenia boesemani, M. lacustris and M. praecox (most probably now one of the most-sold aquarium fishes), angels such as Pterophyllum altum, dwarfs such as Nanochromis nudiceps, and Steatocranus bleheri or Channa bleheri.

Among other fishes attributable to Heiko’s explorations are also many loricariids (as many as 800), new Corydoras species, almost countless tetras and dwarf cichlids from West Africa and South America, knife fishes, puffers and flounders. One of his best-known discoveries was the first freshwater sawfish known, in 1982, in a remote northern Australian lake."

Warning to Biologists

Practical Fishkeeping's report included a statement that should give pause to other fish researchers interested in Brazil:

"According to environmental analyst James Bessa, the specimens seized have been sent to INPA, the National Institute for Research of the Amazon, to be identified.

"Bessa said that the material Bleher was attempting to export were collected this month in the Rio Araca, Rio Demini, Rio Jutai, Rio Negro and upper Solimoes and believed that some of the fish are currently unknown to science.

"Bessa said that IBAMA was awaiting the outcome of a report investigating the transportation of wildlife material without a license and attempting to leave the country with unapproved genetic material.

"He warned foreign researchers that they needed to obtain a licence from the National Research Council (CNPQ) of the Ministry of Science and Technology in order to export material."

International Misadventure?

"Heiko has a world-class ego, but he certainly is not guilty of pilfering Brazil's biological treasures," said a colleague who asked to remain anonymous while Bleher was incarcerated.

"He has done business and research in that country for years, and there is much more to this misadventure than him simply getting caught smuggling. If it was meant to stifle his advocacy for the Brazilian rainforests, it was a pretty heavyhanded act of political intimidation that the aquarium community should see for what it is."

UPDATE: Heiko Bleher Freed

Further information:

Practical Fishkeeping Reports

Aquapress Bleher