Fish have always had a special place in my heart. I have been a vegetarian for over 11 years because one of my fish died when I was in fourth grade. I recently thought that it would be cool to do a series of profiles on some of the coolest fish people have never heard of (with the potential of expanding it to other awesome animals as well).
To kick things off, I wanted to start with a fish that I learned an immense about while doing research for this article: the arowana.
I have always thought of arowanas as being awesome because of how they are one of the few species of fish that are able to measure distance in order to catch prey. They use these distance measuring abilities to determine whether it is safe to leap from the water to grab a tasty looking bug (or even duckling!) from a branch and land safely into the water.
In the course of my research, I learned that all of my exposure to arowanas has been limited to the silver arowana, because its counterpart the Asian arowana, is not allowed to be imported into the US, “but in recent years almost two million of them have been moved across international borders. The farms in Southeast Asia where they are produced are like high-security prisons with concrete walls protected by guard dogs, watchtowers, and barbed wire.” Why do these fish necessitate such high security? The truth is quite the story.
While researching for this article, I stumbled upon a recent book, The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish that I have not had a chance to read, but that chronicles the fascinating recent history of the Asian arowana.
A few decades ago, the only people who had heard of the Asian arowana were snacking on it around dinner time. However, due to overfishing and a slow rate of reproduction, it was listed as an endangered species, and Emily Voigt, the book’s author, argues that this began an even starker decline for the fish. The reason for this goes back at least to Adam Smith and his “water and diamonds paradox.” Although water is crucial for existence, its price is far less than that of diamonds because it is everywhere. Voigt argues that the same principle holds true with Asian arowanas, and that as soon as they were listed as endangered, they became something that people coveted.
The Asian arowana “has large, metallic scales, like coins; whiskers that jut from its chin; and it undulates like the paper dragons you see in a Chinese New Year’s parade,” all of which make it extremely desirable in Asia. In fact, a Chinese government official is rumored to have paid $300,000 for a single fish.
China is far from the only country to succumb to the allure of the arowanas. In Singapore, an arowana kingpin known as Kenny the Fish has arowana farms, and is notorious for swimming naked surrounded by dozens of his pet fish.
The Fish is a real character, and this description of him is worth quoting in its entirety:
A chain-smoking millionaire notorious for posing nude behind strategically placed aquatic pets, the Fish’s real name is Kenny Yap, and he is the executive chairman of an ornamental fish farm so lucrative that it’s listed on Singapore’s main stock exchange. The national press once dubbed him one of the city’s most eligible bachelors and called for him to host a spinoff of Donald Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice.”
This fish has made waves across the continent. Despite its low crime rate, Singapore has also seen arowana robberies at knifepoint. Additionally, “10 rare albino arowana traveled via police escort to the Aquarama International Fish Competition in Singapore — the aquatic equivalent of the Westminster Dog Show — where armed guards stood watch to prevent anyone from adding poison to the tanks.” In Indonesia, fish plastic surgeons perform plastic surgery on Asian arowanas for the public to watch. In Malaysia, a shop owner was stabbed to death and almost beheaded over his arowanas.
This craze is not limited to Asia. A Wall Street executive is known to have broken down into tears when his illegal arowana was confiscated over 20 years ago, and more recently, “a smuggler landed behind bars at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, the same federal prison that once housed Gambino crime-family godfather John Gotti Jr. and al Qaeda member Najibullah Zazi, mastermind of a plot to blow up the New York subway system.”
Most Americans are used to seeing goldfish in bowls, but the thought of spending almost half a million dollars on a single fish seems outlandish. The fact that these fish can cost thousands of dollars, can jump our of the water to catch prey, and the fact that people are willing to kill for them, combine to make a compelling case for the Asian arowana being the first animal I write about.
What species should I write about next?