Shipping Large Tropical Fish in Canada:
By Dragonfish Canada
Original to Aquarticles
A nine year old, 24 inch Red Tail Gold
Asian arowana (from SABF) waiting to be shipped across Canada
Shipping a large fish like an adult Asian arowana would be a daunting proposition for
many aquarists; will such a large fish die from lack of oxygen while in transit? Will it
get severely injured from thrashing about? How do you catch such a large fish in the first
place? How expensive is it to ship a large fish by air?
The following article will explain in step-by-step fashion how a nine year old Red Tail
Gold Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) was shipped by air from Vancouver to
Winnipeg, Canada on August 13, 2008. The fish measured two feet in length and came from
SABF (Singapore Arowana Breeder Farm). It has had several owners. Recently the Vancouver
based owner decided to sell the fish to a serious aro keeper who has large tanks and wants
to try breeding the fish. The only problem is that the fellow lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba!
I was asked to help out with the shipping and I agreed.
Part One - Choosing your shipper
If you want to ship a large fish across Canada these days you have two main carrier
choices: Air Canada or West Jet. Air Canada has better schedules and more flights, but
unheated cargo bays. Westjet has some indirect flights and is known to occasionally
misdirect cargo - but it has heated cargo bays. Both airlines require shippers to have an
account with them. This bears emphasis, as it takes about a week to obtain such an account
and there is some paperwork involved. The requirement of having an account for shipping
only started in early 2008 and probably has to do with security concerns related to the
shipping of unaccompanied cargo. If you plan to ship a large fish, you must either go
through the trouble to get your own shipping account or else find someone to help you who
already has an account. The cargo booking needs to be made at least 24 hours in advance of
departure and paid for by VISA or Mastercard over the phone. You must bring your fish to
the cargo drop off location at least 2 hours before plane departure.
In my case, I opted to ship with Westjet as I have an account with them and have used
them many times over the past few years to ship smaller Asian arowana across Canada. I
also have access to pure bottled oxygen and thus am not overly concerned about Westjet
misdirecting any given shipment - provided it is not winter!
Part Two - Preparations
Once you have booked your flight, you will need to prepare to catch and transport the
fish. You will need a large styrofoam fish shipping box. These come in two standard sizes,
the larger measuring 24"X18"X12. It is VERY IMPORTANT that your
box be completely surrounded with cardboard or else the airline will refuse to take it.
You might be able to source a styrofoam box inside a cardboard box at your local fish
store; if you only have the styrofoam box, you can always make your own cardboard box by
cutting and taping one to size.
You will also need to have a VERY LARGE transparent fish bag to catch
the fish inside the aquarium. This technique is much better than using a net; it causes
the fish less stress and makes much less mess. The trick is to fill the bag with water
inside the aquarium and to then "steer" the fish into swimming inside it. This
is a fairly easy technique to do with Asian arowana, but could prove much harder with
Your choice of shipping bag may or may not be the bag you use when catching the fish. I
would recommend at least triple bagging a heavy duty 3 mm garbage bag. Asian arowana have
very sharp pectoral fins as well as bony tongues; these can easily lead to a punctured
bag. The absolute best bag to use is one available from seafood distributors for
transporting shrimp and live fish. It is a heavy vinyl, transparent at top and opaque at
Finally, you will want to use Bag Buddies as a stress
relieving water additive; Bag Buddies are reputed to neutralize small amounts of ammonia
in water, add dissolved oxygen, and provide a mild sedative and antiseptic effect on the
fish. If you can somehow access some medicinal quality bottled oxygen, I would highly
recommend the addition of it in the bag as well. I use a ratio of 1/3 pure oxygen to 2/3
normal air; too much oxygen and you risk killing your fish by oxidation; too little and
the fish could suffocate if delayed in shipping. I have had a juvenile Asian arowana
survive perfectly well after 24 hours in transit when shipped with a bit of added oxygen.
In addition, you will get piece of mind knowing that even if the airline "loses"
your fish, it will still likely survive until found.
A Case Study - What Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong!
I set my alarm clock for 4:30 am to get up and drive to the owner's place. I had
promised to take care of all aspects of shipping the fish provided the owner took care of
providing a bag for shipping. Thus, I showed up all groggy at just past 5:00 am with my
cardboard-covered styrofoam box and bottle of Bag Buddies. It didn't take long to catch
the fish using a large plastic bag. Then, the fish was transported to a large 3 mm heavy
duty garbage bag. In the process of moving the fish, it thrashed around a lot, leading to
some water spilling inside the styrofoam box. I neglected to pour this water out...This
was mistake number one!
Asian RTG arowana swimming in a 180 gallon
Owner catching the fish in a bag (without
using a net)
Putting the bagged fish in the box
Adding tank water with a syphon hose
With the fish finally inside the garbage bag in the box, I added a few Bag
Buddy tablets and hurriedly tied the bag shut with a heavy duty elastic band. Then, with
both of us being tired and under stress, we collectively made mistake number two - we
forgot to double or triple bag the fish! Instead, we bade a hasty farewell to one another;
I left in a hurry with the fish, and headed off to another location to spike the fish' bag
with pure oxygen.
The shipping additive used
Adding bottled oxygen to the fish bag, 1:3
Fish is boxed and ready to go to the
The oxygen added, I then drove to the airport to ship the fish.
Unfortunately for me, the nicely packaged fish began to leak water when put on a dolly to
move it to a scale. This led the Westjet lady on duty to tell me that "We WILL NOT
take that fish on board the plane! The box is leaking! Take it away!" Luckily, I knew
the manager on duty at the Westjet cargo terminal (he used to work for a big box fish
store), and I convinced him that it was only extra water inside the styrofoam box that was
displaced and leaking. Together we cut open the box, removed the bag, emptied the box of
residual water, and repacked the fish. As the lid was closing for the final time on the
fish, I thought to myself "Oh no. Single bagged fish!" As the fish was
wheeled away it began thrashing like mad inside the box. Everyone laughed. I felt a little
Big fish at the Westjet Cargo terminal in
The fish being taken away to the plane...
My job over, I went home and emailed the purchaser in Winnipeg that the fish was on its
The next 8 hours kind of crawled by. I couldn't decide if the fish would make it or
not, but was hopeful.
The fish arrived in Winnipeg at 1:35 pm and was released for pick-up about an hour
later. Below are the four emails I received from the purchaser over the next few hours:
Email 1 : "Just picked up the arowana now. Will open at
Email 2: "I opened the box because I think someone opened it
to check.. Half the water was out of the bag...but he is still alive. Rushing home
Email 3: "Got the arowana home. Bag in tank with water
dripping in and air bubble. Looking better....not up side down anymore."
Email 4: "The arowana is doing good. He is swimming around
his tank. Thanks for doing this.
As you can see from the attached photos, the arowana is adjusting nicely. When I
picked it up from the airport, the box was open. I opened the box and discovered half the
water was in the styrofoam container. The bag was wrapped around the arowana. It didn't
move for a while. I untangled the arowana from the bag and rushed home.
I decided to put the bag in the tank right away. I added an airstone and rigged up
a pump to get water into the bag. I normally have the fish on the floor and drip water
into the bag. I was afraid that there was a hole in the bag. He/she is now swimming around
and looks good so far. I think the box was opened for inspection and they didn't tie the
bag that well. A clear shipping bag is good so they don't have to open the bag (for next
I am happy and relieved. It is a nice looking fish. I will hopefully get it to
spawn. I saw a 15 foot by 4 foot above ground pool at Zellers on sale for $200. I might
pick it up for next summer breeding effort. Maybe I will set it up in my basement! :)
The arowana getting an emergency
acclimatization in Winnipeg
Aeration in the bag to help the
Released in the tank and doing fine!
Another shot of the newly released
* Make sure you have an account with either Westjet or AirCanada or can find someone
else who does
* Use a large, clear transparent bag for catching the fish and for transporting it;
ideally double or triple bag the fish or use a specialized "sea food" bag
* Use Bag Buddies,
and if possible bottled oxygen (ratio of 1:3) for shipping
* Make sure there is no spilled water outside the bag in the styrofoam container
* Make sure your styrofoam container is inside a cardboard box for shipping purposes
* In winter, make sure you use disposable chemical warmers, available from most sport
supply stores (they are used as foot or hand warmers by outdoorsmen in winter).