Arowanas praised as the rich fish
LAST WEEKEND, a dermatologist friend called to ask if I knew a fish called arowana, because one had bitten his patient's finger while she fed it.
All I knew about arowanas is that they're freshwater aquarium fish, a fact I learned years ago at a Thai restaurant I frequented. There a huge pinkish fish with an upturned mouth nearly filled a tank near the entrance.
One evening, I asked the owner the name of the fish. "Arowana," he said. "Brings good luck."
He offered no more information, and since my interests lean toward the marine, I forgot about the fish.
But during my recent search for information about arowana bites, I realized that my bias had caused me to miss out on a good thing. Arowanas are every bit as remarkable as their marine cousins.
Because arowanas have large scales and two barbels (sensory organs that look like little tentacles) protruding from the mouth, some people think the fish resemble dragons. Arowanas, therefore, are also known as dragon fish.
My biggest surprise was their price: Dragon fish are the most expensive aquarium fish in the world. Large red ones can cost $10,000 or more. A shop in Singapore sets the minimum purchase price for home aquarists at $10,000, and a Web site devoted to arowanas states that some sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What could ever make a fish worth so much money? Well, money itself.
In Chinese culture the dragon symbolizes wealth and prosperity, and the dragon fish is as close as you can get to owning a dragon. One Internet ad claims that the dragon fish is "a powerful energizer of wealth." As a bonus, the fish is also believed to ward off evil spirits.
Since arowanas are hardy fish that can live up to 50 years, the investment has some time to pay off.
Given how much they're coveted, it's no surprise that arowanas, natives of Southeast Asian rivers, are endangered. In 1980 the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) listed the Asian arowana in its highest class of protected fish.
Collecting arowana from the wild is forbidden, but enforcement is tough and the fish are now quite rare.
These days, aquaculture farmers raise pet dragon fish and even issue them birth certificates. The fish from these facilities have microchips implanted in them and are registered with CITES.
Members of the arowana family (numerous species exist) are called boneytongues because of a toothy bone, the fish's "tongue," found on the floor of the mouth. The mouth itself has sharp teeth in both upper and lower jaws.
These fish need sharp teeth because all species are carnivores. In aquariums, arowanas eat only live food such as small fish, crickets and other animals. Fingers, too, apparently, if they get too close.
But don't worry. These dragons breathe no fire and bear no toxins.
If you absolutely have to have a pet dragon, an arowana seems the way to go. On the way to the fish store, though, you might want to stop at the bank.