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Land of Hornbills to Become Top Dragon Fish Breeder?

Posted: May 31, 2012, 2:45 p.m. EDT

Sarawak, or Bumi Kenyalang, i.e., Land of Hornbills, is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. It is home to many freshwater tropical fish, among them the dragon fish, Asian arowana or bonytongue (Scleropages formosus).

There are currently some 140 fish farms that breed this fish in Malaysia, with the 2009 production (the latest figures available) reaching 316,000 specimens worth a total $47.6 million. Out of these 140 or so farms, only 27 are located in Sarawak, and only two of these are currently registered with CITES as certified dragon fish breeding establishments.

Dragon Fish Breeding
Four pairs of dragon fish, plus one loose individual, in a breeding pond in Singapore (Loy Choon Dragon Fish Industry Pte. Ltd.).
John Dawes

At the time of writing, Malaysia had 35 CITES-registered dragon fish farms (CITES registration is an absolute must if dragon fish are to be exported, but not for domestic trade), so Sarawak currently accounts for just 5.7 percent of Malaysia’s CITES-registered establishments. In contrast, just the area around Bukit Merah lake in the Malaysian mainland state of Perak has more than 50 farms.

Indonesia, the leading dragon fish producing country, has 43 CITES-registered farms, while Singapore—the only other country with CITES-registered farms—has 28.

According to Sarawak’s Deputy Chief Minister, Tan Sri Alfred Jabu Numpang, the state has the potential to become the country’s leading dragon fish breeder because it is “endowed with many rivers which are still pristine in the interior areas.” This is despite Sarawak’s relatively modest contribution to current Malaysian dragon fish production.

How pristine waters relate to high dragon fish production is, however, not immediately clear to me, since none of the many successful dragon fish breeding farms I have visited over the years has enjoyed what I could call pristine water conditions. Certainly, the water quality has to be good, but not pristine in the true sense of the word, i.e., immaculately clear or free of extraneous elements of any kind. Bearing in mind that most dragon fish are bred in large ponds (often earth ponds), the water tends to contain larger or smaller amounts of suspended matter and is therefore never pristine.

While becoming Malaysia’s leading dragon fish producer appears to top the list of priorities for Sarawak, it also aims to raise overall freshwater tropical fish production massively over the coming years—in line with the rest of the country. In 2009, Malaysia’s 450 breeders produced around 632 million ornamental fish with a value of $255.4 million. Under the 10th Malaysia Plan, which charts the country’s business aspirations for the years 2011 to 2015, these figures are expected to rise to 1.5 billion ornamental fish with a value of $554.4 million. By the year 2020, the production target is no less than 3 billion fish. In the process, this is expected to create more than 9,000 jobs.

Clearly, Malaysia has its sights set very high. Should it meet its targets, it will undoubtedly experience an enormous boost to its economy in general, and to its ornamental aquatic industry in particular, including that based in Sarawak. However, we must not forget that the other players in this sector also have their own development plans for the future, including, of course, the top world exporter: Singapore. <HOME>

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