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Title: Importing Asian Arowana
Summary: Brief overview of the Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) trade and how to import them to Canada
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Date first published:February 2007
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Importing Asian Arowana


Original to Aquarticles

Author's first RTG Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) 2002

So, you want to import Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) to Canada, but are not sure how to do it. The following article will guide you through the process I followed three times in 2005 to import 30 Asian arowana to Vancouver, Canada. I will begin by providing a very brief history of the Asian arowana market in South East Asia. I will then explain how I contacted the various farms there and detail the step-by-step process you must follow to import the fish into Canada. It is important to mention here that as of now there is no way to legally import Asian arowana into the United States, so don't even contemplate it. I believe, however, that the process I followed would be similar to what one would do in Europe, and possibly soon for Australia (Asian arowana and Australia) Finally, I should note that this article is aimed at the experienced aquarist who already knows how to care for this amazing fish.

History of the Asian Arowana Market

The fact that Asian arowana are available for sale in Canada today is remarkable. Due to a combination of severe habitat destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, and to the high demand of aquarists, the fish was declared a Class 1 Endangered Species by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in 1975. This is the same level of protection afforded the African Rhino and the Asian Tiger. CITES reclassified the Asian arowana in the 1980's, allowing for the commercial breeding of the fish in Indonesia. The hope was that local people would conserve wild fish stocks and breed the fish if there was an economic incentive. The program proved a success and commercial breeding later expanded to Singapore and Malaysia. All Asian arowana legally for sale in the aquarium trade today are at least F2 offspring and are tagged with coded microchips called Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT). These microchips can be read with hand held scanners and allow the fish to be identified as farm bred animals. Along with the microchip, fish are also sold with a birth certificate that includes its microchip number and the name of the CITES registered fish farm where it was raised.


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A PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) microchip
photo Kenta


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Same chip next to a Canadian penny - photo Kenta Umezawa


Examples of Panda Aquatics "birth certificate" that accompanies each fish

After being illegal to import to Canada for many years, Asian arowana, first became legally available in the late 1990's. Initially prices were stratospheric, with Asian Green arowana, the lowest colour grade, selling for over $2,500 US. Gradually retail prices in Canada came down to the level in 2006 where a Green sells for about $250 US, a Red Tail Gold (RTG) for about $750 US, a Super Red for about $1800 US, and Cross Back (Xback) for $3,500 US. The occasional Very Fine Super Red (Chilli, Blood, or Purple Fusion) will sell for as much as $5,000-7,000 US.


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Super Red (Blood Red) on left; Malaysian Cross Back on right
Photos courtesy of Shuuhei Yada

In my case, I was simply unwilling to spend that kind of money on a fish, no matter how beautiful it is; when I found that the large Aquarium chain store in my area was unwilling to negotiate a better price for a group purchase I arranged for a number of hobbyists, I hit upon the idea of importing the fish myself. I discovered I could save 50-80% off the local posted price by purchasing directly from a CITES certified Asian arowana farm. When you are dealing with hundreds and even thousands of dollars, this is no small amount of money.

Contacting Commercial Asian Arowana Farms

The number of Asian arowana farms located in South East Asia seems to grow all the time. It will be your task to choose a breeder who you think you can trust. Many farms insist either on very large imports (up to 50 fish per shipment), and so do not deal with smaller orders from hobbyists. I was tempted to order from some of the arowana farms in Indonesia; in the end I chose to order from Panda Aquatics, one of the oldest and most respected arowana farms in Singapore; I felt confident I would not be cheated and was proven right over time. I would definitely order from them again (Panda Aquatics).

Arranging the Arowana Import

Part 1 - The Paperwork

I phoned and emailed Panda Aquatics and ended up dealing with the manager Derek Goh. I explained that I wanted to order a dozen RTG arowana for local hobbyists in Vancouver; he provided me a satisfactory quote. Out of respect for the confidentiality of their business I will not specify the amount, but it was much cheaper than the regular retail price in Vancouver. There was an additional shipping cost of about $500 US. I agreed to his terms and was then emailed an invoice and a copy of a Singaporean CITES export permit for the fish. I then applied for my Canadian CITES import permit, which took about 3 weeks to obtain.

Part 2 - Assembling a Group Order

While you are waiting for your paperwork to be processed, you have time to find any more people you might need to join you in your group order. Panda Aquatics has a minimum order in place of 12 fish or two shipping boxes. Since most people are not looking to own so many fish, it makes sense to assemble a group order for many hobbyists. Internet forums, classified adds, and word of mouth are all good ways to assemble a group order. You will be surprised at how easy it is to find people to join a group purchase.

Part 3 - Paying for the Fish

Once you have received your Canadian CITES import permit, you will need to wire the payment for the fish to Asia. I always arranged to meet at a local bank with all of the people going in on the group order, wired the money to Singapore, and then gave everyone a photocopy of the money transfer. I also had people sign a sheet agreeing that they understood that I was a broker and had no control over the quality of the fish. Panda Aquatics has a 24 hour DOA (dead on arrival) policy for replacement, but I was still nervous about possibly being liable for any loss. Thankfully in all three of my imports the fish arrived perfectly healthy.

Once the money has been wired, you will be looking at about a week or two before the fish arrive. This gives everyone time to make sure their tanks are ready.

Part 4 - Arrival of the Fish

Assuming you order from Panda Aquatics, here is what you do on delivery day. The flight from Singapore lands around 1:00 PM. Once it has landed, it takes about 1-2 hours for the waybill for your fish to be processed. I usually go to the cargo clearance area for Singapore Airlines in the Aeroground building (located on Jericho Road off Miller Road, not far from the main Vancouver terminal), around 2:00 pm. You will probably have to wait another half hour or so in the waiting area (there are chairs). Once the waybill has cleared, you pay the clerk a small fee of around $30-40. Then you must drive to the Canada Customs center located further down Miler Road (a few doors down to the East of the Runway Cafe, on the left side of Miller Road).

After about thrity minutes of paper work you will have finally cleared your fish through Canada Customs! Now head back to the Aeorground building (Singapore Cargo bay area) back at Jericho Road. Go back into the office, give the clerk your Canada Customs papers, pay another "landing fee" of around $50, get your receipt, head out the door and go about 30 meters to your right to the main cargo area. Enter the door to the cargo area, give the warehouse man your receipt, and wait for him to retrieve your fish. He'll probably drive up with your fish loaded on a mini-fork lift.

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The asian arowana in the warehouse

At this point the wildlife inspector may show up to have a look, and then the fish are yours!

Now, if you do the division of fish the way I do, it will go as follows: Open the box and find the "birth certificates" in a plastic bag. Take them out, make a fan, and have each customer choose one blind. Then quickly find the corresponding fish in the numbered bags, get any payment owed (landing fees, GST and PST, etc.) and everyone goes their separate ways. One time the fish bags had the CITES numbers wiped off due to water mixing with the felt pen ink. You just figure it out on the spot somehow if that happens!

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What you see when you open the boxes

I'd recommend that you bring along a small calculator and a pen and paper to figure out the final book-keeping with everyone. The last few minutes of the import, when you divide the fish up and get the final money owed are definitely the most stressful. You don't want to get your final book keeping wrong now!

Everyone should have a bucket or box with a towel for transporting the fish to their homes.

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Happy hobbyists with their new RTG Asian arowana

Concerning the release of your fish - remember that they have been drugged/sedated. Once you add some aquarium water to the bag the fish come to pretty fast. The addition of the fish to your aquarium follows the standard procedure you'd follow with any expensive fish (add some water wait, 15 minutes, repeat, repeat, release).

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Super reds! (Blood and Chilli)

As an aside, in my third import I had one hobbyist who was late meeting me to pick up his fish. When he finally arrived and held it up to pose for a photo, there was a quizzical look on his face. I asked what was wrong and he told me "I think the fish is dead." The fish in question was a high value super red. Muttering expletives I checked the fish for myself and had to agree that it looked dead - upside down at a 45 degree angle and no movement of the gills. My muttering went up in volume as I ran with the fish inside my home where I promptly opened the bag it came in and dumped it headlong into a 5 gallon bucket. I was shocked at how cold the water was that the fish had been transported in. Hurriedly, I siphoned some water directly from my 180 gallon arowana tank into the bucket. Within 20 seconds the fish came to and began thrashing about. I had to cover the bucket to keep it from jumping out! In retrospect I know the fish had simply been heavily sedated due to the shipping drugs and cold water. The fish was eating later that night in its owner's tank and has gone on to become a beautiful specimen showing no ill-effects of its transport.

So far, everything I have written assumes you are importing the fish only to Vancouver. Those of you who live elsewhere in Canada will be encouraged to hear that I have helped a hobbyist import a shipment of RTG Asian arowana to Vancovuer and then on to Regina, Saskatchewan. This fellow intended to pick the fish up in Vancouver and then on the same day personally fly with them to Regina. Unfortunately he was delayed overnight in Vancouver; becuase he could not replace the pure oxygen placed in the bags in Singapore, he decided to keep the bags closed until he arrived in Regina. By the time he arrived in Regina the next day the fish had been inside their closed shipping bags for aproximately 55 hours! All of his fish have gone on to be healthy specimens. If nothing else, this story shows it is at least possible to clear the fish in Vancouver and then trans-ship the fish to other places in Canada on your own. Before doing so, however, make sure that your air carrier will allow you to fly with the fish as accompanied cargo. If you are not keen on coming to Vancouver in person, it may be possible to hire a local customs clearance company to clear the fish through customs and then forward them on to you. This would require more research on your part.

As with many things in life, the process of importing Asian arowana only gets easier with practise. The first time I imported them, I spent half the day at the airport on the arrival day, while by my third import I spent little more than an hour. It also becomes easier to negotiate better prices from Asian arowana farms once you become an established customer. As far as what to charge for taking on the responsibility of setting up a group order, that is of course up to you. I was happy to earn myself a fish out of each deal and to enjoy the adventure of importing such a wonderfully mysterious creature. Meeting other Asian arowana keepers was fun too!

As a post-script to this article, you can join a group order for Asian arowana from Panda Aquatics by visiting    

(Note: Due to the illegality of importing Asian arowana to the USA, I will not reply to questions asking for advice. Current penalties are fines of up to $250,000 and/or 5 years in jail! See here for an example)