By Ivan Mikolji / 2015
When I started looking into the scientific side of Venezuelan, Amazon freshwater fish, I sometimes came across links with very vague information about “The Amazonas Fish Collection”, run by Justa Fernandez. Every time I came across those links I envisioned Justa as an Amazon Fish Warrior, spearing fish and living in some sort of tree house like the old Tarzan movies.
As years passed and I got a chance to visit the Amazonas state in Venezuela in person, I would get vague information about her from the locals. The fish spearing woman thought became more realistic, and I then envisioned the “fish collection” being a straw hut, filled with dried up specimens of fish, hanging from the ceiling. Fishermen told me she had sailed the Orinoco from beginning to end. She persuaded Indian chiefs to let her into remote areas, no other “white men" had been before, to look for new species of freshwater fish. To me, she lived the life I always dreamed of, she was exactly what I wanted to be, she was my hero.
As time passed, I finally decided I had to go see the fish collection in person and meet my Amazon idol. I tracked down the fish collection and to my amazement it was not a straw indigenous hut, it was actually inside the National Institute of Agricultural Investigations (INIA).
The INIA Reference Collection of Ichthyological Fauna of the Amazon State, Venezuela. (Justas' impressive fish collection)
I entered the INIA Amazonas research center and asked for Justa Fernandez at a small desk they have at the entrance. The girl looked perplexed. “I do not know anybody here by that name.” I then told her I wanted to see the fish collection and got the perplexed look again. I then asked if there was anybody doing fish research and then I got a smile, "JACKPOT". The girl stood up and told me to wait. Soon she came out with a man. I told the man I was looking for Justa, and he answered. “She retired a long time ago”. I then told him I was from the Fish from Venezuela Foundation and I wanted to see her fish collection. The man was perplexed. He said, “This is so strange, you are the first person that has ever asked to see the fish collection.” We walked down the hall, he took out a big wad of keys and opened a metal door. As the door opened the distinctive smell of alcohol and formaldehyde filled the hall. When the man turned the lights on, before me appeared the work of a lifetime of one person, the lifetime work of Justa, my Amazon Fish Warrior.
Once in the lab I was amazed. The person that opened the door said he was left in charge of the collection since Justa had retired. “Since Justa retired the INIA directors decided to close the collection. They do not supply me the alcohol to add to the jars which at this temperature dry up quite quickly. I have thrown out many specimens which dried up in the jars. Management decided to abandon the collection. They do not assign us with any budget to upkeep it.” I took my time and walked through the small aisles looking at the jars filled with new fish species from the most remote areas in the Venezuelan Amazon Rainforest. It took Justa more than 30 years to collect all these fish in pro of science. 30 years of hard work which now nobody cared about, left to dry out.
I left Justas' collection and sat in the car in the parking lot. I sat there looking at the research center with hate, a couple of minutes after the hate turned to sadness, and then under a light rain, sadness turned into shame. I was ashamed of the government, of humanity.
It was many years after when I had the opportunity to meet the Amazon Fish Warrior in person in the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas, far away from any tropical rainforest. When I was told “Mr. Mikolji, may I introduce you to Justa Fernandez”, my face lit up with joy. I immediately asked her. “Are you Justa?” When she nodded affirmatively I went forwards and gave her a great big hug. To me, I was hugging royalty, it was a hug of admiration. There in front of me was a person whom I wish I could be. I stopped hugging her and looked her in the eyes. She was smiling back at me through her eyes. She knew how important she and her legacy of work were valued by me.
Justa Fernandez and Ivan Mikolji right when they met for the first time at a scientific congress in Caracas, Venezuela.
Since then Justa and I have gone in some fishing trips together. She also helped behind the scene to create the Wild Aquarium 1 show, in which we featured Nannostomus anduzei, a fish she described with Stanley Weitzman in 1987. To me Justa is a living legend, an Amazon Fish Warrior, a person who dedicated her life to the science behind tropical fish. She is the essence of my Motto: "You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists."
Justa Fernandez helping me take fish sample reference pictures next to the Orinoco River.
Justa Fernandez testing the water parameters for our Wild Aquarium 1 show.
The Fish from Venezuela Foundation has had the initiative of performing biannual maintenance visits to Justas' Amazon Fish Collection or the “INIA Reference Collection of Ichthyological Fauna of the Amazon State” as the government calls it to upkeep the preserved specimens but lack of funding has made it impossible.
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