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International Waters: Malaysia Pursues Dragon Fish Patenting

Posted: Dec. 13, 2012, 2:10 p.m. EST


By John Dawes

The Malaysian golden arowana is set to splash its way into national heritage status…,” so reads the opening sentence in an article published online by Malaysian website, TheStar.com.

The idea of “patenting” or otherwise registering the golden variety of Scleropages formosus from Bukit Merah by Malaysia has made the rounds for a while(Malaysia claims this variety originated in Bukit Merah Lake in Perah). However, really serious moves to categorize the fish as “a national heritage” now are under way. The Malaysian Fisheries Department “with the cooperation of SIRIM Berhad, will introduce the prized ornamental fish with Specification Standard DOF STA N1:2012 to categorize it as a national heritage.”

SIRIM Berhad is a wholly owned company of the Malaysian government that falls within the Ministry of Finance Inc. SIRIM represents the “government’s mandated machinery for research and technology development, and the national champion of quality.”

Malaysian authorities claim that by granting the Malaysian golden arowana (dragon fish) Specification Standard status, the national dragon fish breeding industry will benefit and it will help “maintain the product as one of the most expensive ornamental fish in the world.” In 2010, Malaysian production of dragon fish was valued at U.S. $49.2 million, up U.S. $2.5 million over the 2009 figure.

Traditional folden crossback dragon fish
A traditional golden crossback dragon fish has a black-topped head and black dorsal scales.
New gen golden dragon fish
The new-generation golden dragon fish appears without the black-topped head or dorsal scales. Photos by John Dawes.
Published photographs of the fish in question identify it as the Malaysian golden crossback dragon fish/arowana, which is characterized by the number of rows of golden scales on the body (six) and by several rows of black scales that run along the back, stretching from the fish’s black-topped head all the way to the tail.

In recent years, though, a new golden form has begun appearing. Bred in captivity by dragon fish specialists—many of them based in Singapore—the new breed of golden dragon fish lacks most—or all—of the black pigmentation on top of the head and along the back. There is a growing body of opinion that this new type gradually will replace the traditional one, owing to its enhanced goldenness and luster.

The significance of these new golds might become progressively more influential with time and end up making the registration of the Malaysian golden variety and its DOF STA N1:2012 less effective in increasing sales of the traditional fish than the proponents of the moves might envisage. According to SIRIM Berhad’s director-general, Ahamad Sabki Mahmood, the Specification Standard also will make the “unique features of the golden arowana” easier to identify, “compared to other arowana types in the market, thus preventing any cheating attempts.” Whether or not anyone would wish to cheat, bearing in mind the large numbers of this dragon fish variety that legally are bred outside Malaysia, is a different matter.

It’s also worth asking: How are breeders of this fish in other countries going to be prevented from breeding the variety? Are there plans to prevent them from doing so, or will Malaysia be willing for them to continue doing so, as long as certain conditions are met? Are royalties or a license going to be demanded from such breeders? Are there any legal grounds for demanding these?

Can Malaysia really expect, as it states, that “all exporters from Singapore and Indonesia maintain the name Malaysian golden arowana?” And what do Indonesian interests have to say in all this, since some there actually claim that the dragon fish in question might be a crossbreed that originated in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, Singapore, the other main dragon fish breeder, along with Malaysia and Indonesia, appears still to be keeping its own counsel, with no official word appearing in the media. Singaporean lawyer, Gerald Koh, has, however, been quoted as saying that “To obtain a patent, an invention has to be new, involve an inventive step and have an industrial application.” However, I don’t think these criteria apply to the Malaysian golden dragon fish. 

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