SAN FRANCISCO (CBS) — Call it the fish you don’t know.

It’s been featured on Animal Planet’s River Monster and it’s been a secret ingredient on Iron Chef. But you’ve probably have never heard of it.

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It’s Paiche (Arapaima Gigas), a gigantic fish that can reach up to 400 pounds or more. But it’s not a new kid on the block. Paiche comes with a fossil pedigree. The oxygen-breathing Amazon river dweller has remained essentially unchanged for over 5 million years.

And it’s disappearing fast.

Wild stocks of the massive Paiche have dwindled due to overfishing. So an unlikely plan is underway to save Paiche from extinction by creating a demand for it here in the U.S.

Salt cured paiche for sale at the Belen market in Iquitos, Peru. Photograph by Jorge Mori.

Salt cured paiche for sale at the Belen market in Iquitos, Peru. Photograph by Jorge Mori.

Whole Foods is joining local Peruvian fish farms in a bid to grow the fish for both retail sales as well as conservation efforts.

The retailer is hoping the mild white fish will become a new customer favorite at the fish counter.

“We’ve partnered with the Peruvian government,” said Whole Foods seafood buyer Tiba Ford. “So that they can actually take the baby Paiche and use that to re-populate the wild stocks in the Amazon.”

It’s risky business but it all comes down to basic economics. Fish farms in Peru growing Paiche for release back into the Amazon river say they also need to sell it overseas to keep the farms afloat financially, so marketing Paiche to the American palate is crucial.

Whole Foods is featuring the fish on its weekly flyers, but the natural foods retailer isn’t Paiche’s only fan.

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For Peruvian chefs like Danny Kou of San Francisco’s La Mar restaurant, cooking with Paiche is tradition. While Kou supports the conservation efforts back home, he also delights in introducing his diners at La Mar to the unique, and versatile fish.

“We use for cooking, we use for ceviche,” said Kou. “We use it for different kinds, It’s one of our main ingredients.”

So how do Whole Foods and other retailers plan on marketing this ingredient? At around $13 per pound the hope is shoppers will see Paiche as an affordable alternative to other fish.

“Just replace it, your halibut or tilapia with your Paiche and the next thing you know it’s their new favorite fish,” said Ford.

But conservation groups are still keeping an eye on this marketing effort. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) cautions that “while the fish is not necessarily threatened with extinction, its use should be controlled.”

Others such as respected conservationist and chef Paul Greenberg also have suggested that Paiche’s use should be monitored.





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